Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” John 18:37
On Wednesday evening, St. John’s was honored to host the Phoenixville Community Inter-faith Thanksgiving Worship. It was a wonderful evening full of many gifts. The first was this beautiful house of worship, next the music of our musicians, especially the choir, an excellent sermon from Pastor Mark Young of First Methodist who reminded us that we are all wandering Arameans, sons and daughters of Abraham, in search of a home, our mayor delivered a fine proclamation officially declaring November 23rd to be Phoenixville’s day of Thanksgiving with grace and style, then prayers followed by a benediction given in Hebrew and English by Eric Miller one of our neighbors and a leader a B’nai Jacob Synagogue. A lovely reception took place afterwards that gave everyone an opportunity to make and renew friendships. The whole evening reminded me of an old Hasidic story about where God dwells.
Once the Kotzer rebbe surprised a group of learned men by asking, “Where is the dwelling place of God?” “What a thing to ask!” they laughed at him. “Is not the whole world full of his glory!” But the rebbe said, “God dwells wherever man (let me add woman) lets God in.” A wise Jewish teacher, Martin Buber put it this way: “This is the ultimate purpose: to let God in. But we can let him in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy intercourse with the little world entrusted to us, if we help the holy substance to accomplish itself in that section of Creation in which we are living, then we are establishing, in this our place, a dwelling for the Divine Presence.” Where we let God in – where we let God direct and rule our hearts, the reign of God occurs.
In our Gospel today, when Pilate enters his headquarters, summons Jesus and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” he seems to have little desire to “let Jesus in.” The man has a job to do. He’s the Roman governor with a mandate to keep order. Jesus is the prisoner. Pilate, the judge. Jesus is the inferior, Pilate the superior. Pilate has no interest in confusing the roles and muddling things up. He represents all those throughout Jesus’ ministry, indeed throughout the ages, who want to keep Jesus “at arms-length” and do not let him in.
But what about those who made a place for him, who let him in and were blessed beyond their imagining? On this Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year we do well to remember them. There’s Mary and Joseph, the family made holy by letting the Spirit in to bear the Christ child…and the Magi who traveled hundreds of miles to seek out the one “who was born king of the Jews.” There’s John the Baptizer falling at the feet of Jesus declaring he’s not worthy to carry his sandals and common fisherman, who leave everything to follow him. There’s a whole array of folks, mostly ones at the end of their ropes: a leper, a paralyze man, a tax collector, a deaf mute, the poor, the possessed, children, adulterers, the sick and suffering. All of them come to Jesus, all of them let him in to be Lord of their lives, ruler of their hearts.
And what about us? Will we let God in? Or will we defend our independence and keep God at arms-length? This is really important for it impacts God’s relationship with us and our relationships with one another. According to a recent large-scale survey, most Americans are suffering from feelings of loneliness and lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.” Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well. The physical and mental health repercussions are substantial. According to the survey, loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity. So, while our society is more electronically connected than ever before, many are lonelier than ever before. I believe this connects to the decline of church attendance, the decreasing number of people involved in service clubs, bowling leagues and other group activities.
So, what to do? The group of learned men were right, “the whole world is full of God’s glory.” Know that, trust that. Experience the glory in the sunrise, in the greeting of a neighbor, the smell of coffee in the morning, the sweetness of a chocolate chip cookie. A prayer of “thank you” acknowledges the glory and let’s God in. Notice and share it with others. This happened to me last week, I was outside talking with one our members about this and that when he looked up and saw part of a rainbow and interrupted our conversation with “Well look at that!” God’s rainbow promise blessed us both. That is the case when we are with others, but also when we are alone. I remember a painting in my Grand-mother’s kitchen of a man by himself, head bowed before a simple loaf of bread. When I was in the kitchen it was usually filled with people – my sisters and parents, aunts and uncles and cousins too. But most days, my grand-mother ate her meals alone – she and the man in the picture both gave thanks to God and in doing so knew God was with them. By herself, but never alone. As one of our dear saints put it at a Wednesday morning Bible Study a few months ago, “All I have to say is Jesus and Jesus is right there with me.” Another often said, “I talk to God all the time and give him a piece of my mind. Sometimes he agrees and sometimes he doesn’t, but he always listens. And I listen too.”
God with us. But also, God for us. I think that’s why Pilate has such a hard time recognizing the King that stood right in front of him. He simply cannot conceive of a king who would die for his people. It’s supposed to be the other way around – the people dying for their king. After all that’s why he was the Roman governor in Judah, a back-water country with competing religious groups, a history of insurrection, hot, dry weather and cantankerous leaders, for Pilate had no king but Caesar and it was by Caesar’s will alone that he served. The King standing in front of him was to be crowned on a cross and in doing so testifies to the truth that not only is God with us in our dying, but for us, bringing us to a new day, a new hope, a new life.
God for us – in baptismal water – naming us and making us his own, giving us a permanent identity and marking us with the cross of Christ forever – so that whether we are part of a group or alone by ourselves, we know we are loved, loved, loved.
God for us – in bread and wine – the body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you – the gift that bears forgiveness, healing and hope while giving us the strength to serve others.
God for us – in community – where, as Martin Buber put it, “we maintain holy intercourse with the little world entrusted to us.” As hard as we try, we never get it completely right, we always fall short, in need of mercy and forgiveness. Yet there are moments of pure grace – when you look up at the choir to see if they have been transformed in angels, so heavenly is their music — when joy fills the kitchen as back-packs of food are assembled to share with children and their families – when a new widow is held and hugged by her sisters in Christ that served her husband’s funeral lunch – when peace is passed to another, as introductions are made and friendships are born.
God is for the whole blessed and lonely world – that’s where we are to serve. It begins with a smile, a few words, an invitation, it continues with care and grows in sharing – one connection, one friend, one child of God at a time, all surrounded by the Divine Presence. Amen.
https://hashkata.com/?tag=martin-buber, accessed 11/24/2018
www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/docs/IndexReport_1524069371598-173525450.pdf, accessed 11/24/2018