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A Pledge of Allegiance

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN on November 22, 2015.


Text: John 18:33-38

A Pledge of Allegiance

Even though we’re well past Halloween, we’ll soon have another opportunity for costumes and pretending when the Madrigal “Feaste” comes to our hallowed halls.   Unless you’ve been living in a sensory deprivation tank for the last month–or you’re visiting with us today–you know all about this year’s Madrigal Feaste (hopefully). The announcement came some pomp and circumstance just a few weeks ago when King Dennis and Queen Ann (Gastineau) made the trek all the way from the Royal Castle to our beloved church to share the invitation.

Now Ann and Dennis are wonderful people-salt of the earth.  Plus they’re intelligent, dedicated, generous and kind people–ideal qualities to have in a king/queen but rarely on display throughout history.  Total authority placed in the hands of fallible, flawed human beings just has not ever worked well.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, Jesus says at the close of Matthew’s gospel.  The Apostle Paul says:  “Every knee shall bend, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:11).

Jesus brings God’s kingdom to us. What does that look like to we who only know of the kingdoms of broken, corrupt humanity.  What it looks like is what Jesus comes to show us.  The story of history is the difference between the kingdom ways of men (and I do mostly mean MEN) and the story of God’s way with us, for us, among us … showing us the kingdom.

Today, Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church calendar year as we begin a new year with Advent next week, puts before us the difference between the ways of human authority and will, and God’s ways of authority–God’s will, as revealed to us in the life of one Jesus of Nazareth.  But even with all that authority in heaven and on earth, when the powers of this world inevitably collide with Jesus our King–in that moment, as we experience it, shall our knees bend? Will our tongues confess or fall silent?

The account before us today from John’s gospel puts us right in the midst of such a collision between earthly authority and divine Reality.  Or should I say a collision of “truth” the word Jesus offers and Pilate ponders. One my favorite writers Frederick Buechner writes of this collision, I thought I’d share a portion of that with you today …

“The man stands in front of Pilate with his hands tied behind his back. You can see that he has been roughed up a little. His upper lip is absurdly puffed out and one eye is swollen shut. He looks unwashed and smells unwashed. His feet are bare — big, flat peasant feet – although the man himself is not big. There is something almost comic about the way he stands there, slightly bent forward because of the way his hands are tied, eyes on the floor, that is, his one good eye, staring down as if looking for something he has lost …  If it were just the two of them, Pilate thinks, he would … send him back to the sticks where he came from; but the guards are watching, and on the wall above them, the official portrait of … Caesar is watching too …

“ ‘So … I’m told you are the King of the Jews,’” Pilate says, because there hasn’t been one of them yet who hasn’t made this claim:  Another King David come back to give Judea a back to the Jews.  But the man’s accent is so thick that Pilate hardly gets it, the thick accent together with what they have done to his upper lip. He sounds as if he has a mouth full of stones when he says, “I’ve come to bear witness to the truth” …

“ … Pilate’s cigarette smoke hangs in the air above them …   Pilate squints at the man through his cigarette smoke and asks his question.  He asks it half because he would give as much as even his life to hear the answer, and half because he believes there is no answer and would give a good deal to hear that too, because it would mean just one thing less to have to worry about:

“Pilate asks,

“what is truth?”

and by way of an answer, the man with the split lip doesn’t say a blessed thing … or else his not saying anything, that is the blessed thing.

You could hear a pin drop in the big, high-ceilinged room with the portrait of … Caesar looking down at them …   Pilate has asked what is truth because in a world of many truths and half-truths, he is hungry for truth itself or, failing that, at least for the truth that there is no truth.  We are all of us Pilate in our asking after truth, and when we come to church to ask it, the preacher would do well to answer us also with silence because the truth and the Gospel are one, and before the Gospel is a word, it too like truth is silence …

… silence that makes itself heard if you listen to it the way Pilate listens to the silence of the man with the split lip.

The Gospel that is truth is good news, but before it is good news, one can also say that it is just … news. something like … the evening news – the television news – but with the sound turned off.

Picture that, then: the news with, for the moment, no words to explain it or explain it away, no words to cushion or sharpen the shock of it, no definition given to dispose of it … only the thing itself: a fire, a parade, a battle, a strike, a treaty, an explosion, a beauty, an accident. Just the thing itself, life itself, or as much of it as the screen can hold, flickering away in the dark of the room ….

Pilate asks Jesus “what is truth?”

Is it what Plato said?

or Aquinas?

or Tillich?

or Oprah?*

or Bono?*

or some movie or tv show or story?*

*[That’s me, not Buechner]

Jesus … stands there in silence in a way that throws Pilate back on his own silence, the truth of himself.   What Jesus lets his silence say … is that … truth is what words cannot tell, but can only tell about … what images can only point to.

The weight of these sad times is the weight of their eloquent … silence  Even when you turn the sound back on again, and people start putting words to things, even then, behind it all, behind the words, silence cries out like thunder.

A particular truth that can be stated in words:

“life is better than death”

“love is better than hate”

“there is a god” … or not;

“light travels faster than sound”

“cancer can sometimes be cured if you discover it in time.”

But truth itself is another matter … the truth that Pilate asked for …  Truth itself cannot be stated. Truth simply … is, and is what it is: the good with the bad, the joy with the despair, the presence and absence of God, the swollen eye, the bird pecking the cobbles for crumbs. Before it is a word, Gospel that is truth is silence, a pregnant silence in its ninth month,

and in answer to Pilate’s question, Jesus keeps silent;

even with his hands tied behind him    manages somehow to hold silence out like a terrible gift.

by Frederick Buechner

from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (1977)

To me that’s the hardest thing about King Jesus: silence, that is.  That gift—that “terrible gift” as Buechner calls it.  That’s what makes it hard to keep our allegiance with him unwavering. Because when these collisions happen, the silence Jesus keeps is filled by so many voices seeking our attention and our allegiance … Voices from the past, voices from every direction.  And in the midst of the uncertainty and confusion that comes in the wake of our collisions with the powers of this world–the drunk driver, the diagnosis, the soldier in combat-or returned from combat; hijacked airplanes on Sept11 … the loss of someone or something that shakes us to our core–in that moment, in the blink of an eye we it’s easy to lose faith in the One who first collided with these powers … and “lost.” And because of that we are tempted to turn to those Kings or powers (voices) all around us which seem to offer us something … more, usually protection, security, certainty  ?

But if we do, when we do, turn to those other voices, we discover that there isn’t much they can do for us except lead us further away from the truth we need.

All the while, there’s Jesus.  He with his hands tied behind his back: silent as ever, and yet somehow in that silence able to do with us what we cannot do for ourselves.

And so it seems we are to meant to learn how to hear in that silence the truth that he would have us know.  A truth that is not about facts or power or knowledge or certainty, or even answers, perhaps; but about transcendence … revelation … life … LIFE … always LIFE, even from the depths and in the midst of the disorientation and chaos that bear down upon us with every one of these collisions.

What King Jesus means to me is that in the midst of whatever maelstrom of chaos, or valley of death we find ourselves in at any given moment, we shall look up and suddenly find ourselves on our knees, blessing the God of Heaven and Earth for the Savior who comes to deliver you, and me, even with his hands tied, nailed to a cross.  To Him we do pledge, to Him I pledge my love and imperfect allegiance, now and always.