The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire

Sermon  November 22, 2015
Scripture Reading: John 18: 33-37

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     I went into Sam’s Club on Tuesday morning. I am someone who avoids shopping.  I do enjoy church fairs, tag sales, flea markets and things like that, but get no joy out of grocery shopping, or buying clothes, or anything like that.  Because of my dislike for shopping, especially in large crowds, when I have to get something, I go early or late.  Sam’s Club has early morning hours for some members, and we just happen to be business members, which means I can go right after dropping off the boys at school, get what I need, and get out of there before it gets packed.

     When I went in on Tuesday I found the first 4 or 5 big isles packed with Christmas stuff.  This is often where their seasonal stuff is located, the Barbecue grills, the gazebos, the outdoor furniture.  Now it has Christmas trees, Christmas lights, all sorts of things to decorate your house.  And then Christmas gifts.  Lots of those little gifts you get for someone you really don’t know, but need to get something for.  The miniature tool kit, with tools so small they really serve no purpose.  Perhaps a wine bottle opener that is supposed to work better than the cork screw we all have in our kitchen drawer at home.

     And it is not even Thanksgiving yet.  Now I am not a Grinch.  My neighbor across the street and I have a little competition about Christmas lights.  It has never been declared, but in the 4 years since he and I moved into our houses, each year he puts up a few more lights, and I add a few just to make sure that I have more than he does.  Not the make it gaudy, we already have a house just down the road that covers their house, has music playing and the lights and music coordinated.  Just enough for someone to drive by and say “That is done nicely.”

     But I have not started to put up my lights yet.  I don’t think I could get into the spirit of the season if my hands were not numb by the time I had half the lights hung.  It is just too early.

     And in the Church we don’t start our preparations for Christmas until next week, which is the first week of Advent.  This has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, because, of course, that is just an American holiday.  It is the 4 Sunday’s before Christmas.  Of course our preparations for those four Sundays do start before next week, I saw wreath making last week, and imagine at some point this week some kind of Christmas decorations might appear in the church.

     But this week we are thrown a verse from John.  I mentioned my first week that John is very different than the other three Gospels.  It was probably written last, perhaps as late as 60 or 70 years after Jesus was crucified.  It is also different in that it does not contain the same things as the other three gospels.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke you can find passages that are word for word the same, suggesting that they probably shared the same sources, but John does not contain any of those.

     This week is also a bit strange.  It is called the Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday.  As we are starting to get out our Christmas decorations, think about putting up the tree, getting into the holiday spirit, we are faced with a passage about the night that Jesus was arrested, just before his crucifixion.

     It is interesting that this passage came up for this week.  I chose it a few weeks ago, but the church, and we, do not live in a bubble.  Things happen around us, which influence how we read and interpret the scriptures.  Last week we had a moment of silence at the start of the service, for the people of Paris.  During our sharing of Joys and Concerns, we had prayers of joy, and sadness around those events.  Many ministers I know re-wrote their sermons on Saturday to reflect on what had happened.  Others I heard talked briefly before their sermons saying that they had chosen not to rewrite them, although the part of the scripture last week of wars and rumors of wars rang very true

     Jesus’ message, I believe is very counter cultural.  You have heard his message before, and maybe seen a bit of that, but this week, in light of what happened this past week, shows just how his message is not how we live, but perhaps how we should live.

     On Friday there were attacks in Paris, and shortly after that ISIS claimed responsibility for them.  The President of France called these an Act of War, and on Sunday retaliated by flying planes to Syria and dropping 20 bombs on targets.  This is the cultural message, you hurt us and we hurt you.

     But Jesus offers a different view of his Kingdom.  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.’

     There are two ways to read this passage.  As it is often presented, Jesus is not of this world, therefore his kingdom is not of this world and his life will not be ended by whatever can be done to him.

     But, let me present a slightly different interpretation this week.  Where Jesus is not talking so much about himself, but rather talking about his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  He and his followers will not fight to bring about his Kingdom, because that is everything that his Kingdom is not.  Or to say it another way: Jesus is not of this world. And therefore his followers will not fight for him because to bring the kingdom about by violence is to violate the very principles of this kingdom and cause its destruction.  For God so loved the world, it is all about that love, and violence will not establish a kingdom that is not of this world.

     Our cultural message is that violence is the way to create, or maintain a Kingdom.  The counter cultural message is that violence is not the way we help in bringing about the Kingdom of God.

     And so we gather, and we pray for thy Kingdom come, they will to be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.  And then we open up our Facebook pages and see a meme of the statue of Liberty holding a gun and a French Flag, with the words under reading “Watch out ISIS, here we come.”

     When I was in Elementary school milk was 7 cents a carton.  My mother gave me a dime every morning, so I would have 3 cents after buying my milk.  Ice cream was 15 cents.  So if I was careful, I could save that extra 3 cents every day and on Friday buy an ice cream cone.  This was a special treat and not every week was I successful in bringing home the extra 3 cents every day, and then remembering to bring those 12 pennies on Friday, so with the 3 cents left over from my milk I could buy ice cream.  But I remember one week, I did it.  I ate my lunch, then took my 15 pennies up and bought an ice cream cone.  It was one of those fancy ones, dipped in chocolate, rolled in peanuts.  I got back to my lunch table and one of the boys hit my arm.  The ice cream came out of the cone onto the school gym floor.  He laughed.

     Now I was never a violent person.  Of course I fought with my sister, and sometimes those got rough, but we never hurt each other.  But I wanted to be violent.  I wanted to teach this boy that what he did was wrong.  So I made a fist, then I went to into the hallway.  I could not do it.  Punching him would not bring my ice cream off the floor.  Of course he was a lot larger than me, so realizing that he would probably hit me back did play a role in my decision.  But I would like to think, in that moment, something inside of me told me that hitting another person was not the answer.  Maybe it was God, maybe I had heard “Turn the other cheek” a few times in church, and it stuck once.  But for some reason, I made the right choice.

     So pacifism is a part of me.  An eye for an eye only leaves the world blind.  Turn the other cheek.  But I am also a realist.  We live in a world where, at least from my view, there is a little white, a little black and a whole lot of gray.  Rarely is there only one correct answer, and things can change so fast that what was the correct answer yesterday is not the correct answer today.

     Glenn, my older son, asked me last week about Syria.  He has watched the debates, should we send troops to Syria.  So I tried to explain it, as best I could, to him.  A dictator, supported by Russia who has done terrible things like using chemical weapons against those who oppose him within his own country.  Rebels, supported by the US, who are trying to over throw him.  Others who are supported by Iran, different types of Muslims who are fighting because their branch of religion is the right one.  Eventually I was getting so confused I found a video on line that tried to explain it.  After the video I said “Did you get all that?”  He said “That is a mess.”

     And his view is accurate.  And we, the United States, hold at least part of the blame.  Right or wrong, we went into Iraq, fought a war and didn’t do a great job at establishing a stable government.  We went into Afghanistan, fought a war there, and also didn’t do a great job at establishing a stable government.  We are trying to work with Iran, but there are many who would like to see that government overthrown.  We support Israel, which many countries do not think should even exist as its own country.  Would the Middle East be stable if we didn’t stick our noses into it, probably not.  But I don’t think we have always helped the situation either.

     We need a strong military.  Yes, I just said that.  I enjoy living in a country where I can say what I believe.  I support those who have fought for those rights.  We also need a strong police force.  That is hard to say when we see and hear about police violence.  But there is a role for good police in establishing order, and keeping us safe.  Many of you know that I work part time on my local ambulance.  There are calls that I go on, where I am glad that someone with a gun is standing behind me.

     So where does that leave us.  We are stuck in that place between wanting justice, even death to those who have killed innocent people in France.  We want to protect ourselves and our country.  We know that the same thing can and has happened here.  And yet we preach and teach and pray to someone who knew that violence only brings more violence.  Someone who knew that his Kingdom was not to established through violence, but through peace and love.

     In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

     I think that is my prayer for today.
  Even in this world of darkness, we have a light that we follow.  Preaching, teaching, praying that the light we follow will not be overtaken by darkness.  Someday, Lord, your Kingdom will come.  I believe that.  It will not be established by violence, it will be established when all your people, all religions and no religion, can learn true love and peace and live the way that you intend us to live.