Sunday, November 25, 2012

King of the hill

A sermon for the Last Sunday in Pentecost – Year B
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37

Do kids play ‘king of the hill’ anymore? Do you know what I am talking about? It is a game where a kid will try to get to the top of a small hill, or on a pile of other kids, and stay on top while the other kids try to push him (I always remember boys doing this…) off.  The kid on top proclaims “I am king of the hill!” and then the others try to push him off.  The game can get pretty rough and most schools and camps ban it from being played. So I wonder if kids even know about it?

Well, they may have taken it out of the playground, but people still play some form of ‘king of the hill’ all the time. The playground game can be pretty good metaphor for life in the business world. All you really need is for one person to decide that they want to be the next king of the hill and then get everyone else involved in pushing the one at the top of whatever heap is being sought after to do the shoving and kicking and pulling. In some workplaces I have seen, the game of king of the hill is more fun, more time-consuming, and more important, than building, selling or providing whatever widget needs to be built or sold, or whatever service needs to be delivered.

Of course, it doesn’t just happen in business. It happens in politics. It can happen in homes. And it can even happen (dare I say it?) in churches.

When the game of king of the hill becomes too important, we are forgetting who is really in charge.
Today we celebrate the end of the Church year and we summarize everything that has happened all year long in this way: Jesus reigns over all creation as King of kings and Lord of lords. But today he doesn’t much look like it.

In the Gospel we see Jesus arrested, humiliated, and  standing before a real ruler. Not a king, mind you, but a Roman Governor…who represented Caesar who rules ¼ to 1/3 the known world. Pilate asks this pathetic-looking wandering rabbi “Are you the King of the Jews?”

For Pilate a Messiah is nothing more than a political wannabe. He is asking Jesus “Do you think you are king of the hill?”

Jesus replies that this is precisely why he came into the world—so that people would know him as king and follow him as Lord and believe that he is the Messiah.  So Jesus answers, yes, I am a king, just not in the way you think.

Jesus’ kingship, his power, is expressed in very differently than the way we use power. His Lordship will be expressed not from a throne or a big desk of power but from a cross of shame. It will be through this cross that Jesus will heal the rift between God and humanity, rescue us from sin and the power of death, and return us to a whole, healthy relationship to God. All we have to do is believe that he is the Christ, and follow him.

In our baptisms, we took on Christ. We said we believe in Jesus, and accept him as the savior, the Messiah, the Christ. We promised to follow Jesus as our Lord over our lives. We said, in effect, that we would put aside King of the Hill thinking.

I don’t know about you, but this is more easily said than done. What we do instead is to ask Jesus to be on our side as we try to climb, push, pull, claw, our way to the top of whatever heap we want to stand on.  The tension between following Jesus as Lord and our desire to be king of the hill runs deep. Allow me to tell you the story of where I first consciously confronted this tension.

I grew up in a parish church that was originally built by a the wife wealthy industrialist for his workers. The Church of the Good Shepherd in Hartford was built in memory of Samuel Colt of six-gun fame. His factory still sports a blue onion dome that Colt was given by the Czar in gratitude for a big order of guns. His wife built my home church so that management, managers, workers and their families could worship, yes, but also improve themselves which is why the parish hall was a community center with a ballroom, a gym, a bowling alley, parlors, and classrooms. All good things. As 19th century industrialists went, I guess Colt was pretty enlightened about caring for his workers.

While this is more egalitarian than some places where the workers went to the Baptist Church, the managers to the Methodist and the owners to the Episcopal Church, ut also was built to remind the workers who made their houses, their school and their church possible. At the rear of the church a big stained glass window showed Moses leading his people through the Read Sea. You know what? Moses had a remarkable resemblance to Samuel Colt! My home parish was built to reinforce our usual idea of kingship. Samuel Colt was king of the hill. And you had better be grateful.

Now in fact I am very grateful to my home parish because by the time I got there, it was a very different place. The parish welcomed and reached out to the neighborhood with food, education and tutoring, youth programs, parenting classes, arts and music programs and AA meetings.  It was a diverse community.  I did not know it then, but that place formed me as a Christian. Despite the stained glass windows, they taught a different kind of power: the power of Christ in community to proclaim and make alive the Gospel.

This transformation happened all across the Episcopal Church--and perhaps across all mainline churches--over the last few generations. We are an off-shoot of a state-church, where a Monarch is the head of the Church, and we used to be known as the "church of the owners." But look around: We have become something quite extraordinary: we a church that is at once episcopal and democratic. We are a church where we promise through our baptismal covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves,” and “to respect the dignity of every human being.”  We know that Christ’s reign is a dominion where all people and all their questions are welcome, where truth is proclaimed and compassion is lived.

And what happened in my home parish also happened here in Easton. This parish used to be the home of the industrialists and the wealthy elite of our city. The beauty all around us is their legacy. And yet today we are a diverse community reflecting every walk of life and whose ministry is focused both on our community and our formation as Christ’s people.

The Christmas season may have started in the stores Thursday or Friday evening but it is not even Advent yet. So on this last week of the Church’s year, let’s reflect on what it all means…the “why” God is doing what God has done. Diana Butler Bass writes the theme of Christ’s Sovereignty we hear today helps us think about  Christ's birth in a different way as we move from ordinary time to Advent and then Christmas. She writes:
“While the world might think Christmas is about WHAT happened (Jesus was born) or HOW it happened (Mary, a stable, angels, shepherds), this Sunday insists that the most significant question is WHY Jesus was born. The answer to that question is encapsulated in the dramatic confrontation between Pilate and Jesus (John 18:33-37), as Jesus witnesses to the what is really means to be ‘king.’”
Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate shows us that what is important is not who is in political power,  about who is ‘king of the hill,’ but who it is we follow. The importance of Jesus’ reign is that we are all drawn into a deep, transforming relationship with God which heals us inside, heals our relationships and heals creation.
The images of hundreds and thousands of saints gathered around the throne that we heard today in Daniel and in the Revelation of John is a picture of Jesus’ reign drawing people to him from every nation and people into a new kind of community: a community of service to God and to each other.

The image of God’s reign then is no longer “king of the hill” but a much more dynamic, lively image. It is like a cross between an open air market, a rock concert and a worship service where everybody is welcome. Where people of every kind gather around Christ and in their words, their actions, their relationships and their creativity proclaim him as Lord and in so doing, they—we—take part in the renewal of all creation.

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