A Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King

This sermon was preached on Monday, November  26, 2018 at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Judeans?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Judean, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “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 asked him, “So you are a king?” 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.”

-John 18:33-37

“It feels like I’m drowning.”

This is how twelve-year-old Miley Munoz, an asthmatic, describes her struggle to breathe.

“It feels like I’m drowning,” she says, referring to how it feels when her airway constricts while walking.

When your airway constricts, when oxygen can no longer normally pass through it and fill your lungs, it can feel, as Miley says, like you are drowning.

This is how it feels for Miley to walk upwards of twenty miles some days.

This is how it feels to be an asthmatic child whose rescue inhaler has run out.

This is how it feels for Miley as she journeys with her parents from their home in Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border along with thousands of other people.

“It feels like I’m drowning.”

Miley and her parents have since reached Tijuana, staying, with thousands of other people, in a sports complex turned shelter, waiting, with thousands of other people, to cross the border and seek asylum in the United States.

After traveling nearly 3,000 miles, the distance that remains between these courageous people and their destination is almost nothing, less than five miles or so. And, yet, these few miles that remain could be insurmountable because the government on the other side, the U.S. government, is so aggressively focused on defending its borders to preserve its so-called sovereignty, the definition of which is supreme power or authority.

And so, I thank God. I thank God, that this government’s power is neither supreme nor everlasting.

In last week’s Gospel text, Jesus tells his disciples that this world’s earthly institutions are temporary. “Do you see these great buildings?” he asks, “Not one stone will be left here upon another.”

Not one stone. Buildings fall. Walls are destroyed.

This week, in the Gospel of John, we are reminded, yet again, that we live in a deep and palpable tension between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-should-be.

At this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has been arrested. Jesus has been questioned by the high priest, denied by Peter, and then taken to face Pilate who asks, “Are you king of the Judeans?”

Yet again, those in power are setting traps for Jesus, carrying out the facade of a fair or real trial, knowing all along that they will sentence him to death.

When Pilate asks Jesus, “What have you done?” Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

And, again, I thank God. Because the kingdoms, the empires, the governments, of this world so often rely on violence and division.

In the first century, this looked like the Roman Empire and other elites targeting, arresting, incarcerating, and ultimately executing Jesus, eager to eliminate any threats to their power and control.

In the 1920s, this looked like the rise of fascism and nationalist movements across Europe. In Italy, Benito Mussolini formed the Fascist Party, seizing the opportunity presented by unemployed and disillusioned veterans from the first World War.

He organized these veterans into armed groups who divided, terrorized, and killed their political opponents, destabilizing Italy to such an extent that Mussolini was able to persuasively present himself as the only person who could restore order and make things better.

He would eventually establish a true dictatorship, introducing anti-Jewish legislation and collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Today, of course, we know what this looks like. It looks like the targeting, arresting, incarceration, and execution of people by our criminal justice system, particularly people of color. It looks like the rise of fascism and nationalist movements. It looks like U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement pepper-spraying and tear-gassing hundreds of migrants. It looks like whichever horrifying headline that shows up on your newsfeed or spreads across your newspaper.

In the 1920s, Pope Pius XI established what we observe today: the Feast of Christ the King. In his encyclical on the subject, the Pope wrote that when people recognize Christ as King, society will receive blessings like real liberty, peace, and harmony.

Of course, this encyclical is an imperfect document and the Church failed to adequately renounce and fight back against Fascism, Nazism, and other forms of nationalism.

But the scriptural foundation for this day is clear: Jesus is Lord; Christ is King.

Jesus is Lord. Christ is King. This is the Good News. This is the Good News that gets me out of bed on a morning like this one.

Oppressive systems and structures are temporary, but the Reign of Christ will last forever and it will look entirely different from the sort of power and authority we are used to.

The kingdom of Christ is not from this world and thank God for that, because although it is not from this world, it will break into and save this world.

This in-breaking has already begun. The seeds have been sown. The birth pangs can be felt. This King, this Christ, has already walked this earth occupying our human flesh.

We live and sometimes we die in that tension between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-should-be, but we have the assurance that we will, eventually, cross the threshold.

And we, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are washed in the waters of baptism, waters that are not static and cannot be contained. “Baptism,” wrote Luther, “delivers us from death and the devil.” The waters of Baptism flow across all borders, deeming them utterly irrelevant, delivering us from nationalism, racism, and all those ideologies intended to divide us from the neighbors we are called to love.

We are called to love the thousands and thousands of migrants who seek refuge in this country.

They were our neighbors in Honduras.

They are our neighbors in Tijuana.

They are our neighbors on whichever side of the imaginary line that separates Mexico from the United States.

Miley Munoz is our neighbor.

And she feels like she is drowning.

And, perhaps, she feels the burn of tear-gas.

The question is, for us, will she feel the presence of a powerful and compassionate church?

And if we want the answer to that question to be yes, if we want the church to powerfully participate in God’s work of justice and peace, then we must believe that, yes, the reign of Christ is real and it is coming and it is rooted in a deep and enduring love.

I went to college in Springfield, Missouri, about three or so hours from where I grew up. And, while I was there, something terrible happened in my hometown. A white supremacist attacked the Jewish Community Center and a Jewish retirement home, shooting and killing three people.

The shooter had been living not too far from Springfield and could have easily opted for a shorter drive, opening fire at any number of places in town. Between the proximity and the reality that, anywhere in this country, such a violent act could be perpetrated, the local Jewish community was understandably afraid. The community as a whole was scared and outraged.

Our response to the tragedy was to hold an interfaith prayer vigil. I was leading an interfaith organization at the time and, together with our Jewish student group, we organized this vigil and invited folks to share what their faith tradition teaches them about love.

One of our speakers was the daughter of one of the victims. She spoke from her Catholic perspective, shared scripture, and told stories about her mother. She also shared a story about her five-year-old cousin. In trying to explain this awful tragedy to a five-year-old, someone had said of the shooter, “Well, he was just full of hate.”

The five-year-old responded by saying, “No, I think he just forgot how to love.”

Gazing at the three candles we lit in memory of the three lives that were lost in yet another act of white supremacist violence, I could not shake those words.

He just forgot how to love. Hate is real. Evil is real. But these things take hold when we forget how to love.

When we fail to show up.

When we fail to open ourselves up to the love we have already been freely given.

When we think love is just another encyclical or statement or sermon instead of the real, difficult, and embodied work of building the world-as-it-should-be.

We have most certainly forgotten how to love when a caravan of migrants is met with pepper-spray and tear-gas, when a twelve-year-old girl feels like she is drowning.

But pepper-spray and tear-gas do not get the final word.

White nationalism and fascism do not get the final word.

Borders do not get the final word.

Hate and evil do not get the final word.

It is Jesus Christ, our king, who gets the final word, working through, in, and around us, until everyone can remember how to love, until everyone knows that they, too, are loved, until everyone can breathe.