Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate 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?" 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."
In our on-going Sunday night adult education group we’ve come to know that the Book of John was written nearly two hundred years after the death of Jesus and far from recording historical accounts of his life it reflects theological understandings of his ministry and existence.
Sadly, as the latest of the Gospels, it also reflects the reality that by this point in history the early Christian community is becoming separate from the Jewish community that Jesus was apart of. With this separation comes persecution of early Christians and the narratives of Jesus death change in ways that blame the Jews more directly as a people for the death of Jesus, when the Romans where truly responsible.
Knowing all this we can sit back from our vantage point and see how it was that Pilate must have been confused about Jesus.
This lowly son of a carpenter was actually wildly popular with the Jewish people and word had reached Pilate that some referred to Jesus as King.
King? No, must have thought Pilate, not this man in rags who travels from town to town preaching about love and acceptance, whose message of radical hospitality upset the old guard of the established religious order who had come to serve as collaborators with Pilate and his Roman occupiers. Jesus welcomed foreigners and unclean people; he kept company with women and tax collectors. This was no king. Kings are like Pilate and Caesar, clothed in the best fabrics and men to be feared because of their authority and ability to exercise that authority with the armies at their sides. Jesus preached non-violence. How could this Jewish peasant be a king?
When Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God his words were a direct challenge to Roman authority. The Roman Empire was based on the accumulation of wealth and power to serve the needs and interests of the emperor. A peace of sorts was maintained throughout the empire – it was said a citizen of the empire could walk from one end to the other without fear of be accosted – but it was a peace maintained by fear. Those on the margins that demanded more for their communities – more food, more freedom to worship, more freedom to practice their own culture – were brutally suppressed. Jesus reached back to the words of the Hebrew Prophets and reminded the Jewish people that such a world was not what God had intended. No, God wanted a world where everyone shared in the bounty provided, and where the least of these in society came first. In the Kingdom of God, Pilate – who wielded his authority for the benefit of the empire and not the common good – had no place.
The church too quickly forgot the lessons of Jesus. When Constantine converted and declared that Christianity would be the state religion of the Roman Empire the Christian faith became perverted. At that moment, the church became an agent of the state and church officials collaborators once again. The movement that Jesus envisioned was nearly extinguished.
But the embers of the fire continued to burn in the hearts of some. Some men and women who heard the story of Jesus and who were fortunate enough to read his message for themselves kept alive the idea of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the Roman Empire, and the empires that followed. Over the centuries Christians have, following in the footsteps of Jesus, worked to heal the sick and to care for the poor. Some Christians have become great voices for freedom of oppressed peoples. Others have lead or taken part in non-violent revolutions for social change.
We spend too much time in the Christian church debating what happens to us after we die and not enough time talking about how to improve the world we live in. Jesus was never obsessed with death and salvation the way he was obsessed with building up the Kingdom in the here and now.
Here’s a question to consider: Do we want to build up our membership? If the answer is yes, the question becomes why and how. Numbers for the sake of numbers does nothing to advance the goal of building up the Kingdom. Larger numbers might create a better sense of community or create a social club but that cannot be out goal. We need to aim for something larger. We need to be evangelists for the Kingdom and work to increase our membership by drawing in people who recognize that we actually stand for something.
We pride ourselves on being places where all points of view are accepted. But I also agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. who once preached at Riverside Church that: “…I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
There are too many great moral issues being debated in our community today – in our state and the world – that require the attention of the church. These issues – whether it be the coming debate over marriage equality or more life threatening issues concerning global climate change – that demand that we not be silent but take stands, not just as individuals but as a church community.
What would Pilate think of us? This is a serious question. If we dropped Sunnyside Church and University Park Church through a time warp and into Pilate’s time would we been seen as a community that was at all threatening? Or could we easily be ignored? Are we speaking out as a church on the important issues of our time as churches or are we sitting in silence – perhaps acting as individuals, perhaps hoping someone else will do the work we are all called to do?
Jesus knew who he was. He didn’t need a title or throne or crown to tell him that he was God’s son called to proclaim the Kingdom. We need to struggle a bit with who we are, I think. It’s time.
We need to be marching alongside workers at Wal-Mart calling for livable wages.
We need to be demanding of our President and our Congress a carbon tax and other measures to dramatically shift the way we all live to save God’s creation.
We need to be demanding of our local community permanent funding sources to create affordable housing and standing with those facing foreclosure.
And Sunnyside Church and University Park Church should be the first churches to Oregon to publically endorse a ballot measure calling for marriage equality in 2014.
If we do these things and more, we can stop being the church of Constantine and start being the movement of Jesus. We’ll be controversial. New people will come to worship with us and others will mock us. But at least we will know who we are and can say that we are faithfully responding to the teachings of Jesus in our time and place.
This Christmas Eve in Portland join the people of Sunnyside Church and University Park Church for a special joint 6:30 pm candlelight service in Sunnyside Church’s historic Southeast Portland sanctuary located at 3520 SE Yamhill Street. The public is welcome at this family friendly service (children are encouraged to stay during the service but nursery care will be available).
View Christmas Eve in Portland On Facebook.
Sunnyside Church and University Park Church are progressive and Reconciling Congregations in the United Methodist Church. Preaching Christmas Eve will be The Rev. Chuck Currie, a minister in the United Church of Christ, who serves as the minister of both congregations in an ecumenical partnership. Rev. Currie is a contributor to The Huffington Post whose ministry has focused on opportunity and hope for those living in poverty, and for the civil rights of all.
2012 has not been an easy year. We lost my mother, Judy Bright, to cancer in April at only 62 and during that time I was diagnosed and treated for a cancer of my own. Despite these difficulties there is much to be thankful for. I’m thankful for the honor to serve God as the minister of both Sunnyside Church and University Park Church here in Portland, to study on-line and on-site at Chicago Theological Seminary (and for the grace they have shown me this year) and for my family and friends who have lifted me up during challenging times.
In the Hebrew Scriptures we find Psalm 100:
1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;*
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
In this spirit, I give thanks for all the many blessings I have. Despite the injuries suffered over this year it is hard not to feel overwhelmed with blessings as Liz and I watch our daughters grow and as I become closer with the parishioners whom I am in ministry with.
It goes without saying that 2012 has been a difficult time for many in our nation and the world. I give special thanks to those who find in their faith the courage to work for justice and the common good. And I pray for a better tomorrow for us all.
Americans have a right to be proud of the response by federal and local officials to Hurricane Sandy. President Obama - along with Governor Cuomo and Governor Christie - has been working around the clock to provide aid to those most in need. But the storm impacted not just northeast but also the Caribbean where Church World Service is hard at work providing assistance in places like Cuba and Haiti.
Learn more about how Church World Service is responding to Hurricane Sandy and please make a donation to support critical efforts underway both in the United States and the Caribbean.
I will offer prayers for Mayor-elect Charlie Hales, Commissioner-elect Steve Novick and newly re-elected Commissioner Amanda Fritz at my churches this Sunday.
Our prayers will also be extended for all in Portland -- particularly those who have engaged in the democratic process this year. Such work makes our community stronger. I look forward to working with the new City Council on issues such as growing poverty and crucial community needs in both North and east Portland. This is a time for all Portlanders to come together for the common good.
I know from Hales' previous public service that he will make Portland proud.
Over the course of the last few years I have felt increasingly concerned that my endorsements of political candidates, particularly at the local level, have negatively impacted my ability to speak as a minister on the issues most important to the church. I’ve always made it clear that endorsements are my own and do not represent the churches I serve but that line is to thin. Frankly, my endorsement of political candidates has never mattered much. But I recognize that as a member of the clergy that my voice can carry weight on some of the important moral issues we face. That is where I can make a difference.
I’ve preached before that when we align the church with one candidate or one political party, we risk becoming an agent of that cause instead of an agent of God. Scripture teaches us that we are called by God to be loving critics of the conventional wisdom, not agents of the state. And it is in that task -- calling the political leaders of our day to account -- that there can be no negotiation. Scripture teaches that we have a responsibility as a people of God to be actively involved in the life of the world. That means that the role of the church is sometimes to lift up difficult issues and put them before the public. That is what abolitionists in our churches did during the era of slavery, that is what civil rights marchers did in our churches during the Civil Rights Movement, and that is what our churches are doing today in calling for economic policies that help reduce poverty and lift up children. Those of us who are followers of Jesus have a special responsibility to speak out on issues related to peace and justice.
No one can accuse me of ever going easy on a candidate I’ve endorsed. After all, I’ve been a loving critic of the policies of President Obama and local officials here in Oregon when I felt it important.
Still, it concerns me that too many people link me these days with politicians instead of the causes I believe should be the focus of my ministry.
Therefore, moving forward I will not be offering endorsements, at least in local elections where the connections are so close. Instead, I will focus on the issues that have always been important to our churches and to me – particularly fighting poverty and the battle for equality – and will happily work with political leaders that share those goals and will hold those that do not to account in the best prophetic tradition of the church.
My latest op-ed today in The Huffington Post:
The agenda before the nation is large and includes growing poverty and climate change. To be successful, President Obama will need people of faith at his side.
Paul Ryan said today that President Obama compromises "those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation in the first place." Ryan is wrong, of course. It is a sad and desperate religious attack against a faithful Christian from a politician who cannot debate on the issues. Our politics should be better.I've endorsed President Obama because of his values. He cares about the "least of these" in society. Barack Obama believes that we are our brother's keeper, our sister's keeper. That is why he has fought for health care reform - long a goal of America's churches. The president is a good steward of our environment, God's creation, and we need that to combat climate change. President Obama also believes deeply in religious freedom and honors the religious pluralism of our great nation. He doesn't see faith as a tool to tear people apart but as a way to bring people together.
Election Day will matter. But people of good faith can come to different conclusions about how to vote. I agree with the philosophy advanced by President Obama. I believe his policies will continue to advance the common good and that the policies advanced by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan - which helped create the crisis we face today - are morally troubling. We ought to debate the issues. What I find most distateful is when politicans misue faith as a political weapon. It should not be done.