This fall, the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church has been engaged in a sermon series, New York Gods, about the idols and false gods we often construct for ourselves. I was invited to preach the final sermon in the series. It was also Christ the King Sunday, so I chose to talk about the idol of Power.
You can also listen to the sermon here.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015
Christ the King Sunday
33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus 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.’ 37Pilate 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.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
The year was 1925. The place, Italy. A new prime minister named Benito Mussolini was orchestrating a series of steps to increase his power. He and his National Fascist Party had overthrown the existing prime minister a few years earlier, and he had convinced the legislature to give him dictatorial powers. Using both military might and parliamentary maneuvers, Mussolini and the fascists were consolidating their power, demanding absolute allegiance, and systematically destroying their opposition.
That same year, 1925, an encyclical was published by Pope Pius XI. This little document, nothing more than a pamphlet really, did two primary things: one, it announced to the world that there was only one supreme ruler of the world, and that ruler was not Mussolini, not a political party or fascist ideology. That supreme ruler was Jesus Christ: Christ the King.
The other thing that the pope’s statement did was establish a holy day in the church, a day in which the church would proclaim with one voice that Christ is Lord of our lives. That day is called Christ the King Sunday, and 90 years later, Mussolini is long gone, but here we are, still singing majestic hymns about Christ the King, still reading scriptures affirming the kingship of Christ. As my friend Joe Clifford tells his church in Dallas every year on this Sunday, “Grace and Peace in the name of Jesus Christ, the leader of the free world.”
Is that who Christ is? That’s what Pilate is trying to find out. He asks him point blank, “Are you a king?” They have a little back and forth and still Jesus doesn’t answer the question… but then he does, but in a strange way. He doesn’t say “Yes,” he doesn’t say “No,” he instead describes his kingdom. He says twice, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Only when Pilate asks him again, “Are you a king,” does Jesus say yes, sort of: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, to testify to the truth.”
It’s as if Jesus is saying, “It’s less important to me whether you think I’m a king, and more important that you know the dimensions of my kingdom… in fact, don’t call me a king unless you understand what kind of king I am.”
So what kind of king is he? What kind of power does this king have?
It’s an important question, this question of power. Because here we are in one of the power centers of the world. I happen to live in another of those cities, Washington DC. And I stand here today very aware, one week after Paris, that your city and my city know something, perhaps, of what the people of Paris are experiencing right now. In these incredible seats of power, we know that while we live in hubs of business and finance and global communication and politics, we are still fragile human beings, flesh and blood and bone, and tears. Our prestigious positions, and our advanced degrees, and the majestic buildings in which we live and work and worship, will not ultimately protect us from harm.
We know that what happened in Paris and Beirut, and then Mali this week, is not just an affront to the Prince of Peace and the King of Glory whose praises we sing here today. What happened in those places, and in too many others to mention, is an affront to basic human decency and it must be resisted with every bit of courage we have and fought with every bit of peace-building energy we can ask God to grant us.
But how? If we are subjects in a kingdom that is not of this world, what kind of power do we wield?
I keep thinking about 1920s Italy, Mussolini’s incredible rise to power, and it seems so strange and touching that the church responded to this… with a position paper. What kind of power could a church policy paper have in the face of such twisted evil? It seems like such a feeble protest. The rise of Fascism, and what does the church do? It institutes a new holiday.
What kind of power is that?
I don’t know how many scientists we have here, but I hope those who are here will permit me to borrow some of their language as we unpack this business about power. Because physicists will tell you that there are two primary equations to describe power.
The first one is
Power = Force x Velocity. Force x Velocity.
So power comes when we push something with a certain amount of oomph (that’s the scientific term) and we do it with a certain amount of speed.
So by this equation, if we want to maximize our power, if we want to be power-full, we want to push hard, and we want to push fast. The harder we push and the faster we go, the more power we yield.
And I think this is the way we usually think of power. This is the equation of overwhelming force. Quick action. My way or the highway. Get on board or get out of the way. Flatten the opposition. Push. Achieve. Mission accomplished. Close our borders, shut down the mosques, and flatten Syria into a parking lot.
That kind of power can feel very satisfying. But to borrow Scott’s language from earlier in this series, this kind of power can whispers false comfort in our ears.
Force x Velocity is a particularly potent temptation on days that end in body counts.
Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out that “Jesus is not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He is brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out.”[i]
The Reign of God does not run on that kind of power. It does not run on Force x Velocity.
In fact, Jesus’ kingdom has none of the usual stuff we think of when we picture a kingdom. There is no opulent palace, royal intrigues and scandals, no power plays, no aristocratic class. No, the chief currency of Jesus’ kingdom is this weird idea of truth. “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.” And Pilate asks him the famous question, “What is truth?”
Frederick Buechner imagines this conversation taking place between Jesus and Pilate and says, “Jesus doesn't answer Pilate's question, “What is truth?” He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.[ii]
Truth is not a what, as Pilate’s question suggests, but the truth is a Who.
The Who is the King of the Jews, not a ruler from on high, but a Palestinian Jew who spent his toddler years as a refugee in Egypt.
And right there is the paradox of Christ the King Sunday:
Not a posturing king on a throne, but a peasant on a cross.
Not a military general who calls us to arms,
but a nomadic carpenter who said “take up your cross.”
Not a political leader with his own platform and campaign website,
But a person who said, “I am the truth. And I am the life. And I am the way.”
I am the way, and the world you see around you, churning along dysfunctionally, is not the way the world should be. Look at my life, Jesus says, and you will see a template for how the world is supposed to be.
Theologian David Lose suggests that we have to look at the action in this scene to get at what’s really going on. If it were playing out on a stage, “the stage would be split in two. One half would be occupied by Pilate’s headquarters; the other half would be devoted to the portico, or patio, just outside his headquarters.” Standing on the patio are the religious leaders who have brought Jesus to Pilate. Standing inside is Jesus.
The scene begins, then, with Pilate coming out to greet the religious leaders. And then Pilate goes back in to Jesus. Then he goes back out to the mob. Then back to Jesus. All told, Pilate moves between his headquarters and the patio not once, not twice, not even three times, but a total of seven times. “That’s right,” David Lose says, “Pilate wavers back and forth between Jesus and his accusers like a drunken sailor trying to walk from the pub back to his ship.”[iii]
And that’s just the point. Pilate wavers: he knows what is right…but he also knows what is easy, what is politically expedient.
The crowds are shouting:
Hit him hard!
Hit him fast!
Force x Velocity!
And then there’s Jesus. Just standing there in a different kind of power.
The physicists know. I told you there were two ways of calculating power. The first as we’ve said is Power = Force x Velocity.
The second equation is Power = Work divided by Time.
Work divided by Time, or in the shorthand, Work Over Time.
Now we’re getting somewhere! Work over time does not posture. It doesn’t bluster. It doesn’t favor the quick forceful action over everything else. Work over time is Jesus’ way of wielding power.
Force x Velocity would be Jesus punching Pilate in the throat and escaping the palace, gathering his followers and taking up arms, staging a surprise guerrilla uprising against Rome. But that’s not the equation of Jesus.
Instead, power looks like a last supper with friends in which Jesus breaks bread and pours wine and says all the things that need to be said. Power means not resisting when the mob comes to arrest you. Power is declaring forgiveness in the final faltering breaths. Power is new life bursting forth from the grave; power is a church that gets it wrong sometimes but oh when we get it right you’ve got to shield your eyes from the brilliance of it; power is that we’re still here 2,000 years later, fighting evil with good, feeding the hungry and caring for the stranger. Work over Time... Work over Time.
Work over time takes the long view instead of being seduced by the idol of the quick fix. It’s hearts and minds. It’s a pamphlet proclaiming Christ as King in the wake of a Fascist dictator rising to power. Today it’s the Catholic Bishops and the mainline denominations, and the National Association of Evangelicals speaking with one voice about the plight of Syrian refugees (and when have we ever gotten the evangelicals and the mainliners to agree about anything?!), and they’re saying that we may be scared, and we need to be thoughtful and thorough in our processes, but we cannot close our hearts and doors to those who are vulnerable and literally running for their lives.
Jesus' power, Work over Time, is what Eugene Peterson has called a long obedience in the same direction. It’s figuring out what our work is and doing it quietly but relentlessly day after day, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, which means it’s just beyond our grasp… but not beyond our imagining.
I’m always interested in what gets passed around social media following a major world event such as the Paris attacks. You often see Mr. Rogers quote about finding the helpers. But the other one I saw a lot this week comes from Rabbi Tarfon, who says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
That is the power of the kingdom of God. Work over Time.
It’s the power of a man named Jadav Payeng, whom some people know as Forest Man. You can learn about him in a short documentary of that name.
Forest Man lives on Majuli Island in India, nothing more than a sandbar, really, home to about 150,000 people, but due to terrible erosion, it’s half the size it used to be.
Spurred by the dire situation, Payeng transformed himself into a modern day Johnny Appleseed and singlehandedly planted thousands upon thousands of plants, to try to halt the erosion. He started this work in the 70s.
Payeng’s work has been credited with significantly fortifying the island, while providing a habitat for several endangered animals which have returned to the area; a herd of nearly 100 elephants (which has now given birth to an additional ten), Bengal tigers, and a species of vulture that hasn’t been seen on the island in over 40 years.
Imagine a forest that’s larger than Central Park, all planted by one man, living a long obedience in the same direction.
That’s power. Work over time.
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Do justly, now.
Love mercy, now.
Walk humbly, now.
Image: View from the Empire State Building showing the power divide in New York City after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Picture: Tom Hussey.
[ii] from Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures