Wat Phra Doi Suthep is one of the great holy sites of Northern Thailand. Legend has it that centuries ago, a king placed relics of the Buddha on the back of a white elephant, and set the elephant to wander on the Doi Suthep mountain. Where the elephant stopped, there the temple would be built. And it was.
My ears pop and pop again as we ascend the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck taxi. That elephant didn’t mess around. The road terminates, but three hundred more stairs up the mountain lie between us and the temple.
The stairs to Wat Phra Doi Suthep are worn stone. Where western stairs would have railings, these stairs have dragons. Carved, painted green and gold, running the full three-hundred-stair length. At the landings, vendors sell bottles of fresh-squeezed orange juice, small carved buddhas, little snacks of half a dozen tiny fried eggs (quail? Pigeon?). On the steps, Hmong girls in traditional costume will pose in a picture with you for twenty baht, wrapping their chubby toddler arms around you and planting a kiss on your cheek, before they prompt you to put money in the pouches hanging from their necks. I wonder what their lives will be like.
In the temple courtyard, we watch Thai dancers, take in beautiful views of Chiangmai, ring big brass bells. Then we remove our shoes, wondering how we’ll find them in the pile of hundreds, and enter the temple pavilion.
The temple is a riot of color, sound, and smell. Carvings of elephants, dragons, buddhas, boddhisatvas. Incense and oil lamps. Doors are elaborately carved and painted in vivid hues of red and gold. Barefoot, we roam the temple pavilion, a courtyard within the courtyard. In the center, worshippers process around a golden structure, murmuring Thai prayers. Around the periphery, people slip in and out of chapels, kneeling to hear monks pray or teach, bowing their heads as they are sprinkled with holy water, sitting in silent contemplation of lovely Buddhas in shades of green and gold.
It is hard to know what to do, tourists in a place of worship, unwilling to kneel or bow towards statues or monks. (Is that an act of faithfulness, or is it arrogance? Integrity or disrespect?) We take it all in, the people lighting incense and pouring oil into lamps, praying and meditating. We are spectators in a place of prayer, trying not to gawp at the unfamiliar practices, entranced by the daily life of a working temple. It all feels so foreign.
Suddenly, my perception shifts, like those pictures that slide from portraying a vase to two faces, and everything looks different. This is what I see: flowers, flames, images – simple human ways of recognizing and honoring a divine One too huge and too ineffable for words. People with hopes and dreams, needs and desires, fears, anxieties, and pain. Prayers for health, for harmony, for daily bread. Prayers for loved ones and for our world. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel so foreign after all.
Holy One, hear our prayers. Amen.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Sermon on John 18:33-37
The Gospel text today might have sounded a little strange to you today, if you’ve been coming to church much this fall. Last week, Jesus was teaching and healing the adoring crowd – but suddenly today, the crowd has turned and he is under arrest, being questioned in Pontius Pilate’s headquarters. If you have even the most passing familiarity with the Christian tradition, you'll recognize this as part of the Passion story. Why are we reading it a month before Christmas?
Today is the last Sunday of the church year, and for this Sunday, one week before the beginning of Advent, we have special texts for a day which we call “Reign of Christ Sunday,” the day when we pay special attention to those parts of the Bible which speak about the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the reign of God. And so this week, we have this brief scene from Jesus’ trial before Pilate, where Pilate asks Jesus whether he is “King of the Jews.”
When I found out I would be preaching on Reign of Christ Sunday, I read this text, and I was completely befuddled. Sure, the word “king” is in here, but it’s hard to imagine a text that runs more contrary to themes of the great majestic power and glory of Jesus. Because no matter what Jesus or Pilate or the narrator or anyone have to say about kingdoms and kings, we know where this text comes from. We know that Jesus has been betrayed and arrested. We know that Jesus is about to be tortured and humiliated and executed.
So I turned this text over and over in my mind as I considered what I would say to you about this text and about Christ the King on this Sunday. And these questions were still with me one Saturday when I went to see Where the Wild Things Are. I grew up loving the book, a lovely little fable of just a few sentences, about Max who wears his wolf suit and makes mischief, who is sent to bed with no supper and sails away in a magical boat to the land of the wild things.
But the film took me by surprise, and I was struck by the way it expands the story of Max becoming king of the wild things. Max sails to a strange land and sneaks up to the village of the wild things as they are grieving over their abandonment by K.W., another wild thing who, like Max’s older sister, has found cooler friends. When Max comes out, the wild things gather around him, towering over him and threatening to eat him, until Max, a little boy of eight or nine years old, shouts “be still!” “Why?” they ask, and Max replies, “Because I am a king.” This takes the wild things by surprise: “You’re very small, to be a king,” they say. But Max tells them tales of his kingly feats of making Vikings’ heads explode with his magic powers, and finally they believe him, and wonder if they should make him their king, as well. But they have a few requirements of their king, and so they ask, “What are you going to do about the sadness? What are you going to do about the loneliness?” Max replies that he will be able to keep it out with a shield, a shield that keeps out all sadness and loneliness, and that is big enough for all of them to fit inside. And so with this reassurance, the wild things crown him king, and the wild rumpus begins.
For a while, things are raucous and wonderful, a perfect world for a little boy or a wild thing. Max and the wild things crash and smash things; they run and leap and yell, until they finally fall asleep in an enormous pile. Even K.W. comes back, and the wild things are overjoyed with their new king. But it can’t last. Soon enough conflict sneaks in. K.W. leaves in a huff, and some of the wild things are insecure, or hot-headed, or moody, and nothing Max does seems to make it right. He introduces one idea after another for forming a perfect kingdom of wild things: a dirt clod fight will let everyone have fun together, he thinks, or maybe building a fort. But nothing works. Everyone wants his attention, and wants to be his favorite, and wants him to stop another wild thing from leaving or fighting or interrupting or saying mean things. They want him to fix things for them, to be in charge of everything and make their world perfect. But he can’t. And soon enough, Max’s promises are shown to be products of the wild imagination of a little boy. Max doesn’t have a shield to keep out the sadness and the loneliness. The wild things decide that he isn’t a very good king at all.
As I sat in the movie theater, today’s text seemed perfect for Christ the King Sunday. In today’s text, we find our expectations challenged. We might have thought we knew what it meant for Christ to be the King: Jesus reigning supreme at the right hand of God, glorified and majestic, welcoming us into the perfect Kingdom of God. The disciples, too, might have thought they knew what it would mean for Christ to be the King – and they were ready to fight for it until Jesus told them to put away their swords. We, and they, like the wild things in the movie, think that we know what it’s going to mean to have a king. The king will rule over everyone, everyone will obey the king, and if the king is a good king, then everything will be just the way we want it. But wait – how do we want the kingdom to be?
In Where the Wild Things Are, each wild thing wants to be the king’s favorite – and their fights for Max’s favor sound a lot like the disciples bickering over who will get to sit at Jesus’ right hand. They hope for a kingdom where they will be elevated over all others. Maybe sometimes we hope that too. Maybe in the Kingdom of God, we think, Jesus will make everything exactly the way we want it, and will always be on our side, and will make everyone be nice. But this text reminds us that that is not the promise of Christ the King Sunday.
For us Americans, kings are the stuff of history and fairy tales, but in the world of Jesus, kings were a political reality, and in that time, the king of all kings was the emperor, Caesar. The Roman imperial system demanded enormous taxes, exploitative taxes that sometimes left people starving, and in the middle of all of this oppression and need, they were supposed to praise Caesar as not only king, but also god. One text we have from just before Jesus’ life says this: “Augustus was filled with virtue as a benefaction to all humanity, a savior who put an end to war and brought order to all things… and the birth of Caesar was the beginning of good tidings to the world.” The idea of kingship in the world of Jesus was tied up with divinity, salvation, and the right to dominate and subjugate. The king was supposed to provide order and plenty and peace – and in return would receive loyalty and praise and even worship. The people declaring Caesar to be a great savior of humanity, looking to Caesar to give them a perfect world, were controlled and exploited by the empire. That is what it meant to be the king in Jesus’ time.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. When we hear words like that, we might think of a great heavenly kingdom with Jesus reigning as king over all – like Caesar only greater more powerful, and more benevolent – but I don’t think that is what Jesus is talking about in this passage. Jesus says that his basileia, his kingdom or empire, is not ek tou kosmou. Not “from” or “out of” this kosmos. Kosmos means world, but not in the sense of “planet” – it means a world order, a society and its way of being, like “the Western world.” Jesus doesn’t say his kingdom is not in this world; he is not talking about whether or not his kingdom is on this planet. He is talking about whether or not his kingdom is like other kingdoms. He is talking about whether or not the kingdom where Christ is king conforms to this world order, a world order in which the king stands at the top of the hierarchy, establishing order and demanding gratitude. That kind of kingdom is what Jesus rejects when he says that his kingdom is not “of this kosmos.”
It would be a mistake to hear him promising a bigger, better empire in the world to come. No, this, like so much of Jesus’ life and teaching, tells us that in order to understand what the “kingdom of God” means, we are going to need to throw away our ideas about what it means to be powerful in our world, and we’ll need to listen to the many words that tell us what the kingdom of God is actually like. Words that tell us that all of the hierarchies and structures which keep people jockeying for position will be transformed or reversed. Words that envision a way of justice and peace, a way of serving one another and breaking bread together. Words that promise a kingdom which is not like the kingdoms of this world.
In the movie of Where the Wild Things Are, we never find out exactly why Max decides to leave the wild things and sail home. But in the book, Max halts the wild rumpus and sends the wild things to bed without supper. And then the book says this: “And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all. Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat. So he gave up being king of where the wild things are.”
I don’t think Max ever imagined that it would be so lonely being king; after all, couldn’t he just tell the wild things to do what he wanted? To keep him company, to entertain him, to love him? But Max has a loneliness that goes deeper than being alone after sending his subjects to bed; Max’s loneliness, I think, has to do with the realities of the kingdoms of this world – kingdoms which separate us from one another with hierarchies and categories, kingdoms which put us above and below and against one another instead of beside each other. Kingdoms which are just as real in contemporary America as in first-century Judea. Kingdoms which tell us which people matter and which do not. Kingdoms where some people have every desire fulfilled while others are sent away hungry.
These are the kingdoms that Jesus rejects when he says, “if my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” Jesus calls us to turn away from the ways of kingdoms that are from this world, from kingdoms where victory is achieved by violence, where ends are justified by means, where our place in the world is defined by power, prestige, and privilege.
And Jesus calls us instead to a kingdom which is not of this world, the reign of God where the king is servant of all, and where we are called to become servants alongside our king. The reign of God, where we testify to the truth that that everyone is created in the image of God. The reign of God, where the meek inherit the earth, and peacemakers are called children of God. The reign of God, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, black nor white, able-bodied nor handicapped, young nor old, for all are one in Christ Jesus.