At the end of a week of such violence and heartbreak–not only bombings and shootings in Paris and the ongoing search for accomplices in Belgium and beyond, but also hostage-taking in Bamako, Mali, ongoing violence in Iraq and Lebanon, in Afghanistan and Nigeria, in cities of our country, in places known and unknown to us, in places near and far, violence and brutality and hate- and fear-mongering–at the end of such a week, like so many other weeks, how can we possibly claim that Christ is sovereign over all the world?
“Are you a king?” Pilate asked Jesus on that dark night in the praetorium. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus answered. “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.”
Notice that he said, “My kingdom is not from here.” He didn’t say, “My kingdom is not here.” The kingdom that Christ reigns is not about location–not some other-worldly place–but the reign of Christ is about relationships. It is not about relationships of violence, like a kingdom here in “the world,” as John refers to it–”If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” Your kingdom, Pilate, is run by violence, and in your kingdom people like me get beaten and crucified. In your kingdom, and kingdoms like yours, people blow themselves up, mow down innocents at restaurants and concerts, return hatred with hatred, violence with violence. “But as it is, my kingdom is not from here…I came to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
As Nancy Rockwell wrote, “Jesus freely walks into the city [of Jerusalem] knowing the truth that Pilate doesn’t know…the truth that life [and love] cannot be stopped by brutality and cruelty. Pilate looks to the world to see where power lies and where power rises, and sees only the absence of power in Jesus.” [patheos, 11/22/15] Only the absence of power in Jesus, in this man who this time the next day would be dead and laid in a tomb…utterly powerless. Except that we know what power was at work in him, a power that brutality and cruelty could not ultimately stop. It was the power of resurrection, the power of love, the power of kindness, the power of relationships that are not based in violence. “Are you a king?”
Still, in the midst of the bombs, in the midst of the beatings, in the midst of the gaping holes of grief over loved ones–these and others– lost suddenly or over a long, agonizing time, life and love do not feel so powerful. It feels like heartbreak. It feels like being torn apart. It feels like utter powerlessness. “Are you a king?”
Parker Palmer writes that “Heartbreak is such a constant that every ancient wisdom tradition seeks to answer three questions: How can we prepare for heartbreak? How should we hold it when it comes, as it always will? Where will we let it take us–toward more death or new life?” [onbeing, blog, 11/18/15]
I shared yesterday at Marge Page’s funeral that last weekend, days after the Paris bombings, Michel Martin of National Public Radio had told of friend of hers–a neighbor, a teacher–who had died. “I mourn her,” Martin said, “because I know her and appreciate her, but I also mourn her because the grieving of one merges into the grieving of others.” Each grief merges not only into other griefs we’ve experienced, but also into the grief that all human beings share. “We bereaved are not alone,” Helen Keller wrote. “We belong to the largest company in all the world–the company of those who have known suffering. When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted into which our grief has given us entrance, and inevitably, we will feel about us their arms, their sympathy, their understanding. Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world. So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain.”
How do we prepare for heartbreak? “Attentive students of life [Parker Palmer writes] learn to exercise the heart day in and day out, allowing life’s ‘little deaths’ to stretch us in ways that make our hearts suppler.” Little deaths like, spending yourself, disappointments, failures, the death of a dream or a relationship, “every day a little death,” as the song from the musical “A Little Night Music” puts it. “Then,” Palmer says, “when larger forms of suffering strike, our hearts can break open rather than apart–giving them a greater capacity to hold life’s pain as well as its possibilities and joys.” [op cit.]
How do we hold heartbreak when it comes, and where do we let it take us? We share in the great company of the bereaved, as Helen Keller says, and use our experience to lighten the load of others, for one thing. And also this wisdom from the wonderful Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye–“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,” she writes, “you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” Her poem called “Kindness” is deep medicine and wisdom for a day like today and a world like ours.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness…
… Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend. [cited by Palmer, op cit.]
“In a world that can be as heedless and as heartless as ours,” Palmer writes, “kindness must grow from deep roots if it is to be strong and sustainable.” Our faith must grow from deep roots, if it is to be strong and sustainable, if it is to carry us through our loss and grief and into the new days of hope and resurrection and life.
On this Reign of Christ Sunday, we pledge our allegiance to this Sovereign–
“When we speak about wisdom,” wrote the 4th c. bishop Ambrose of Milan, “we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about peace, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking of Christ.” So may wisdom and virtue, justice and peace, truth and life and redemption and kindness rule our lives and our world, as we give thanks and remember this day.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark