Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
Today’s gospel reading is out of context from what we have been hearing in recent weeks and from what we will be hearing as Advent begins next Sunday. It is from the end of John and is a conversation between Jesus and Pilate. The reason we are hearing this today is because this Sunday marks the Feast of Christ as King, even though the text clearly shows that Jesus is not any kind of earthly king.
Jesus is under arrest and Pilate asks him, “Are you the King? What have you done?” Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world.” He goes on to say, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to those who wish me harm. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. YOU say that I’m a king.” Jesus’ identity is in question as he pleads his case before Pilate. This scene is the first station on the Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross, which many of you have walked in Jerusalem or in prayer during Lent.
In another version of the story, in Mark’s gospel, the soldiers went so far as to clothe Jesus in a purple cloak; then twisted some thorns into a crown, and placed it on his head. Jesus, the king in God’s kingdom, was mocked and scourged, in the earthly kingdom. What a truly complex identity and yet, Jesus remains focused on peace and love, never wavering in his calm.
And so, as we wrestle in this gospel text with Jesus’ identity, I wonder, “What is your identity? Who do you say that you are, particularly in times of stress or fear? I have a story to share about one type of identity: genetics. That’s just one way of understanding identity. Others include, culture, religion, interests, to name a few. The other day a woman told me of her personal experience regarding her shifting identity after doing an inexpensive DNA test along with her uncle. She had grown up hearing stories about her British heritage. It was part of her family and her growing up. While the results did reveal some British DNA in her lineage, there was a whole lot more that she had no idea would be in the mix – lots of Irish, Western European of all sorts, and even a hint of Polynesian! Who knew?
What she learned was that the identity she had carried around for so many decades was actually incomplete and she had to begin to form a new understanding, a new story, and a transformed identity.
You see, identity is important. Tribalism and belonging are part of our stories and our understanding of self. But they are also totally unimportant – like always thinking you are British when you are actually a melting pot of genetics. Does it matter? Yes, and our ethnicity is not the only part of who we are.
Sometimes it matters because other people make it matter, or a DNA test says something other than what you had always believed, or you find out your birth parents aren’t who you had always believed them to be, or however the truth of your identity differs from the story you have always held to be true, it comes down to this: We belong to a larger family, a larger community. You are made in the image and likeness of God. As I tell my children every day: you are a beloved child of God and you are part of this family and you are good. You are holy. And you are, we are living on earth in the midst of Jesus’ kingdom.
So, what is Jesus’ kingdom? Jesus’ kingdom is beyond this time and place and it is also right here, so near. Jesus’ kingdom goes beyond our earthly identities into a cosmic and eternal kingdom in which our souls will always be in relationship with God. This is God’s kingdom where Jesus IS king and when we’re caught up in the bombings, the terrorist attacks, the racism, and realities of this kingdom, this earthly kingdom, where Jesus IS NOT the king, it feels so overwhelming.
It begins to feel hope-less. And we spin, grasping at straws, attacking one another out of self-righteousness as to who is more indignant or outspoken, more compassionate or caring on their Facebook wall or twitter account, struggling to find a way to make a difference in this broken, hurting world.
On my bad days, I kind of feel like Pilate in this isolated text “Come on Jesus, help us out. Be king of this mess for a day. Fix it!” That’s kind of what it sounded like when Pilate was haranguing Jesus in the praetorium that day because Roman occupied Palestine wasn’t much different than our world.
It seems like these sorts of things just keep happening over and over. In my lifetime, the first act of terror to make a huge imprint was the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building in 1995. I was sitting in Mr. Orr’s 8th grade American history class when the principal made an announcement asking for teachers to donate blood if possible because a major accident had taken place only 100 miles away from the town in which I grew up. And we all remember where we were on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked.
From wars in the Middle East, to unrest in Israel/Palestine, displaced refugees around the globe, economic instability, disease, hunger, unrest, and fear – Fear, fear everywhere you turn.
Mohammad Joulany, who was here at Epiphany recently certainly knows about fear and instability having grown up in East Jerusalem where he is now living, working, and raising his own family. He is one of the co-directors of Kids 4 Peace in Jerusalem and spoke at a recent forum. Mohammad is Muslim, Arab, and a soft-spoken young man who has grown up under Israeli occupation and he shared with us parts of his story. The piece I will never forget is this. He said at the age of 19, he had never actually met and talked to a Jewish Israeli. He passed them in the streets, but had never really talked to anyone until he attended a camp program.
On the first day he found out his assigned roommate was Jewish. He went straight to the director and demanded that it be changed. He said, “I cannot share a room with him, he will kill me in my sleep.”Unbeknownst to him at the time, his Jewish roommate also went to the director that day and requested a room change saying, “I cannot share a room with him, he will kill me in my sleep.” The director held firm. They remained roommates. They got to know one another. No one was killed in their sleep and most importantly; they began to conquer their fear. They moved beyond misperceptions and, they stretched the boundaries of relationship and belonging, entering into relationship. Because relationship is the only way to overcome fear.
For Mohammad, that experience was life changing. He now dedicates his time and energy towards working for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, between Christians, Muslims, and Jews and he does this beginning with children and youth. His work takes him around the world as Kids 4 Peace has ongoing, year around camps and workshops that engage youth, 6th grade through 12th grade, in cross-cultural, inter-faith dialogue. It is exciting work and I hope to see some of our Epiphany youth become more involved in the next year.
Mohammad has moved beyond and has transcended that into a beautiful reconciling web of relationships that branches out from his community into the broader world. He now works very closely with all different people, and Mohammad is able to do this incredible work of reconciliation because he understands his identity and it goes beyond his nationality, it goes beyond his faith, and it reaches into a core understanding that there is a kingdom much larger, much broader than this earth.
As he seeks to take his personal experience of transformation from fear into one of hopefulness for peace, Mohammad doesn’t simply hope, he accepts the gifts God has given him and works towards peace.
Because when our overarching identity becomes an eternal relationship to God we live differently. We relate differently to God and we relate differently to one another.
That’s the kingdom perspective. That is when, from a Christian perspective, Jesus IS king.
This week, when it seemed the weight of the world and current events were weighing on my soul, the words I was searching for in my heart appeared on the pages of my prayer book: “God may we be instruments of your peace on earth.”
In this earthly kingdom that so desperately needs God, may we open ourselves to the gifts of God’s spirit and tend to our own fears, our trembling, our assumptions, our judgment, and then share that with the wounded, with the suffering, with the refugee, and the stranger. May we be instruments of God’s peace upon this earth.