November 25, 2018, Rev. Karen J. Bowles
2 Samuel 23:1-5
Christ the King Sunday
I’m beginning to think that kids today are smarter than those of my generation. But I guess every generation feels that way. I remember my father scratching his head when the new math came out and mumbling something about the importance of completing my own homework. I felt the same way when one of my children was in high school taking a course called the theory of knowledge. It’s as heavy as it sounds. One of his essay topics was two statements in quotations followed by a question. The statements were “Different cultures have different truths.” and “A truth is that which can be accepted universally.” ‘What are the implications for knowledge of agreeing with these opposing statements?’ I must admit I read it 3 or 4 times before I even thought I understood the question and then mumbled something about the importance of completing his own homework. Well, I read his paper and he had identified 3 types of truth. Culturally learned truths, innate truths and scientific truth. We will consider these three this morning.
Cultural truths are conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them. Some of these could be: Democracy is a force for good. Freedom is better than restriction. Free markets lead to greater prosperity. Pork is unclean. Russia needs a strong leader. Land is sacred. Land is a resource. America is the defender of freedom. There are 4 seasons in the great white north: Winter, Still Winter, Almost Winter, and Construction.
And a cultural truth for those of us who grew up on the Biblical stories is that King David was an ideal king (who had a few lapses referred to by Ivan in the introduction to our reading today) a master poet who wrote many of the psalms and an ancestor of the future Messiah.
‘And David did do a lot of the things he’s famous for: he did rise from humble beginnings to become king; he did create a new nation; he did inaugurate Jerusalem as a religious centre. But to achieve these results, he had to sacrifice virtually all of the values that we want to imagine to be kingly. David did create a new state out of the previously disorganized settlements of Judah. From that base he proceeded to take command of the northern territory of Israel, bringing both under a single crown for the first time. The Bible makes this out to be a matter of popular acclaim, the people lining up to have David as their ruler. Readers are supposed to love David just as his people did. But David actually took command by force: like a modern-day dictator, he led a private militia of veteran mercenaries answerable only to him, one that was easily able to overpower any opposition. David made Jerusalem into a national and religious centre, as tradition holds. But he didn’t build it from the ground up; he took it, displacing its ancient native inhabitants.’ The Promised Land was not empty land. And we know David caused the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah and probably had his own son Absalom put to death.
And these were different days. Kings ruled by divine right. Power had to be wielded to be maintained. Walls defined kingdoms and the prevailing tribalism was inherently racist. But perhaps not so different days – the death of Jamal Khashoggi at the direction of a King, our treatment of Indigenous peoples, the characterization of Mexicans as murderers and rapists.
Into these cultural truths came and comes Jesus – the one who rode a donkey into Jerusalem as a symbol of his kingly power. And we picked up the story by jumping ahead in this last Sunday before the beginning of the story of Jesus to this passage in John recounting the story of Jesus confronted by Pilate following his arrest. Pilate is concerned about possible insurgency by the occupied Jews against the occupying Romans.
Pilate asks: Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus responds with a question – Is that your own idea? And Pilot responds and one can imagine him throwing up his hands “I have no idea. I am not a Jew. What have you done that the crowd is calling for your death?
Jesus responds with an apparent non sequitur – and says ‘my Kingdom is not of this world.’
Pilate, thinking he has just got Jesus to admit pretensions to kingship says “Aha, so you are a king!”
Jesus responds and does not claim kingship. He claims something much larger and wider and deeper as he says “for this reason I was born and for this I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to my voice.”
It is abundantly ironically clear that these two are speaking at cross purposes. These is a large disconnect here: the penniless, wandering, story-telling, imaginative Jew, and Pilate, the hard-nosed, logical, practical, no-nonsense Roman functionary. Pilate is pursuing the political according to the prevailing cultural truth of Kingship – Jesus is exploring the spiritual according to his transforming understanding of innate truth.
Jesus finally responds in the second exchange by claiming a kingdom – a kingdom that does not grant dominion over a certain parcel of land or a particular race of people. It is a kingdom without borders. This so called Kingdom is not maintained by force or violence but by moving from heart to heart as it stirs us up to hear what he hears, to see what he sees, to feel what he feels.
What is truth? Pilate asks. Jesus says he came into this world to testify to the truth. And this truth is not simply a proposition to which you can say yea or nay. Is it the innate truth witnessed to by Jesus and available to all. What has all of Jesus teachings been but to witness to the love that is God. It is difficult to talk well or eloquently about truth as love or love as god. But here goes.
One of my favourite titles for a book is a volume of sayings by Simone Weil – a 20th century philosopher and writer whose own search for knowledge of God is collected in a book called Gravity and Grace. In it she describes “Gravity not as the force that anchors all on the earth, but as the force which above all draws us from God. It impels each creature to seek everything which can preserve or enlarge it and to exercise all the power of which it is capable.” And what are these things that we seek to preserve or enlarge our existence? Position, possessions, self delusion – refuge in denial – the wielding of power over others – the bending of others or situations to our own ends – all those things which seek to bolster up our own tottering existence.
And how do we escape from this gravity – from this gravity that Weil equates with evil? By grace alone. By opening ourselves up to the innate truth we possess. “God comes to us through the infinite thickness of time and space – penetrates into our souls … and there it waits in silence until we consent to become God again. She says: God consented through love to cease to be everything so that we might be something. We must consent through love to cease to be anything so that God may become everything again.”
Stripped bare without artifice, possessing only vulnerability and the ability to touch this love, we come to a place of infinite simplicity, we offer simply ourselves.
And out of this place, speaking out of this place, we can begin to study the scriptures. Out of this place we can read the words of Samuel and of John seeking to learn from the experience and the insight of others in different times and places.
Jesus says: I will seek the lost – I will bring back the strayed – I will bind up the injured – I will strengthen the weak.
I was hungry and you gave me food I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink – I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing – I was sick and you took care of me – I was in prison and you visited me.
What images, what emotions do these words evoke? I am immediately lightened of my burdens when I hear these words. I am taken to the heartbreaking places, the dark places where light does not seem to shine – and I find not despair when I hear these words but the capacity to catch a glimpse of the heart as wide as the world, to see a bit of the light pierce the darkness – to gain a bit of this innate truth. There is infinite gentleness and infinite strength in these words, and there is the prospect of the unity of all, the relatedness of all in all. There is innate truth.
And what do the words – I was hungry and you gave me no food – I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink- I was a stranger and you did not welcome me – naked and you did not give me clothing – sick and in prison and you did not visit me – what do they evoke? Do you not feel the utter helplessness, hopelessness, the loneliness, the despair? Light has not penetrated here – this is a place of thick darkness. Truly I tell you just as you did not do to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did not do to me. This too is innate truth.
And the scientific truths we are grappling with now bear out the innate truth Jesus lived and died for.
First: Everything is connected. About 4.6 billion years ago a planetary system formed in a relatively sparsely populated region of a galaxy that we call the Milky Way. On one of the planets in that planetary system the conditions were right for elements and molecules to form water and amino acids. Those amino acids reacted to form proteins. Those proteins became DNA. Your body is made of cells that contain those molecules.
Approximately half of your body is made of hydrogen atoms. All those hydrogen atoms were formed in the infant universe. The rest of the atoms in your body were formed in the cores of stars that died billions of years ago.
And second: the earth is warming due to human activity. The vast consensus of the scientific community is that we understand the physical processes, we’re adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we have evidence that the earth is warming. According to NASA, there will be more drought and heat waves, hurricanes will become more frequent and intense, sea level will rise by 1-4 feet by 2100, the Arctic is likely to be ice free in summer before the middle of this century. And those who will bear the brunt are the poorest among us.
Out of the teachings of this book we read from each week we have built a society that is informed by, indeed based on, these innate truths. Let us not forget that – let us not take these foundational principles and dilute them with equivocation, rationalization or fear of the other. Let us speak out of this place of vulnerability. The path then becomes straight and the decisions evident. We can inform our actions, inform our decisions and reform our relationships. In politics – integrity. In economics, reworking a system based on overconsumption and the myth of perpetual growth. In industry, outlaw the manufacture of guns, pound swords into ploughshares, bring our remarkable ingenuity and capital to slow the warming of the planet. In investments, know where your money is going, and for what and redirect where necessary. In relationships, when someone draws a line in the sand, when agreement seems impossible, seek to find ways to erase that line, make yourself vulnerable to one another.
We mark Christ the King Sunday today celebrating the kingship of one who never claimed it. Instead he claimed to know truth. And he claimed we each do as well. When we open the eyes of our hearts, we will see You. Please join me in the following litany:
Jesus announced the coming of God’s reign, a commonwealth not of domination but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.
We see you in peace between brothers and sisters, justice amongst neighbours, reconciliation between peoples.
He healed the sick and fed the hungry.
We see you in the hand offered and the meal shared.
He forgave sins and freed those held captive by all manner of demonic powers.
We see you in the giving of mercy in the court and the sharing of grace in the hospital, hospice and home.
He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.
We see you in the dawning understanding on faces that grace and mercy and God’s love are for all or are for none.
He preached and practised unconditional love—love of God, love of neighbour, love of friend, love of enemy and he commanded his followers to love one another as he had loved them.
We see you wince when we hurt and laugh when we love
We see you when we open the eyes of our hearts