By: Amelia McDaniel, Director of Children’s Ministries
I speak to you in the name of the Good Shepherd, the King of Love, whose goodness fails us never.
Today marks the end of our liturgical Church Year. The last Sunday in the Season after Pentecost. I guess you could call today the church’s New Year’s Eve.
Next Sunday the new church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent, the time of preparing for the birth of Jesus. And we will begin anew the ancient pattern of days, the circle of the Church Year. Following the way to Bethlehem during Advent. Celebrating the Birth of the Jesus on Christmas. Remembering the stories of how he grows from a baby into a man throughout the stories of the season of Epiphany. During Lent we turn again to preparing, but this time not for his birth but for his death. And then thankfully there is Easter to celebrate. And we do that until the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter. The day we remember that Jesus did not leave us here high and dry but sent the Holy Spirit amongst us. And then we hit the LONG season of the Season after Pentecost. It is almost impossibly long.
Pentecost amounts to a whole lot of Sundays. Like half the calendar year of them. It seems that someone had the wisdom to know that it would take us an incredibly long time to grow into the mysteries of Christmas and Easter. This Sunday is the 27th Sunday after Pentecost. For 27 Sundays in a row we have heard stories inviting us to grow into a bigger understanding of the Kingdom of God.
Today on this Church New Year’s Eve, it is not the baby Jesus we are remembering. Today our readings are full of the story of Christ the King. The psalm portrays a King, a man with splendid apparel, mightier than the biggest breakers of the sea.
The Epistle has Jesus rolling in with the clouds. Our Alpha and Omega who is and was and who is to come.
Strength, power, dominion, glory. This is the picture of the King these scriptures hold.
But then we get to the Gospel reading and this picture changes when Jesus is doing the talking. Here in the Gospel we find Jesus in front of Pilate. Already arrested. Already committed to what he knows will take place all too soon.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks him. There’s a bit of a terse exchange between them. Jesus tells him. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…But as it is my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate I am sure has no clue what Jesus is talking about. What land, what people is Jesus proclaiming to be king over? Jesus tells Pilate that Pilate can say that he is a king.
What kind of King is Jesus and what exactly does his kingdom look like? The Gospels are full of parables about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is like… they begin. The kingdom of God is like the mustard seed, so small and yet it grows so big. The Kingdom of God is like the merchant who gives up everything for the pearl of great price. The kingdom of God is like the father who embraces his prodigal son. There are so many wonderful parables about what the Kingdom of God is like. But our gospel today, the Gospel of John doesn’t include these kind of stories in the text. Except there is a reference to a Parable we know. My favorite one, The Good Shepherd.
In John’s Gospel Jesus explains that he is the Good Shepherd. It’s not in parable form, not hidden in a story. Just right out there. Jesus says outright I am the Good Shepherd .
Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd and I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one can take it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down. And I have power to take it up again.
There he is the Shepherd King. One whose power does not come from amassing troops or money or land. Rather he is a King whose dominion comes from his willingness to lay it all down, to lay his life down for others, for us, his sheep. And then to pick it up again for us all.
It is not the kind of King Pilate was familiar with or anybody else around Jesus for that matter. And it’s not really the kind of King we are familiar with either. A King whose strength and power come from love and sacrifice not dominion and might. The boundaries of this kingdom of Christ are not defined by anything other than God’s unfailing love. By the Shepherd who stands between the wolf and his sheep.
It is hard for me to comprehend just how big and deep and broad and wide this Kingdom must really be. Except sometimes it’s not. Sometimes there are people and instances that pierce through my dull vision and the light of the King of Love’s world just about blinds me.
It happened once when, I took my children to Atlanta one Mardi Gras break. You get Mardi Gras break when you live in Louisiana. It’s lovely. Wyly was about 9 and Jed was 5. One day of the trip we spent learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. . We visited his childhood home and walked past Ebenezer Baptist Church before we got to the National Park site with a museum that chronicles the American Civil Rights Movement, and Dr King’s role in it. His grave is close by, situated between the church and the King Center. It was moving to see the eternal flames in front of Dr. King and Mrs. King’s tomb. I was happily surprised by how engaged my kids seemed to be throughout the day, learning about Dr. King and his life.
I held their hands as we walked away from the tomb, thinking to myself how glad I was that we had seen this. Then my son stopped and looked up at me.
Mama, who is the man who killed Dr. King?
James Earl Ray.
But, Mama why’d he do that?
I guess because he had let a lot of hate into his heart.
Is he in heaven now?
Who? Dr. King?
No, mama the other guy.
I paused. Dumbstruck having never considered this before.
I don’t know baby. I’m not quite sure how heaven works.
And then he said… Well don’t you think Dr. King would want him there? You know, because he wanted all people to live together.
Out of the mouths of babes. I had never taken the time to consider the eternal life of James Earl Ray, but my not so touchy feely little ragamuffin of a son had. It was not important to review that the King family had questions about Ray’s guilt. It was not important to him to discuss all of the many things about heaven I didn’t have answers about. He clearly, in his five year old mind and heart had a construct of what the Beloved Community, what the Kingdom of God, looked like and he knew it was open for all. And that somehow love had a way of changing things that did not seem changeable.
I looked at him and said that I sure hoped that Mr. Ray had had a chance to work on that hate in his heart. And that yes. That was exactly what Dr. King taught about, all of us living together in peace here on earth and with God. And that there is nothing in all of the world that can separate us from God if we are able to just let ourselves be loved by him.
I squeezed his hand a little tighter. And that story has never and will never be far from my own heart.
What kind of King is Jesus? What does his Kingdom look like? When I try to imagine it, this vision of what the Kingdom can be given to me by my five year old is what I see. For me believing in the Kingdom of God is to believe that there is a possibility to redeem the ways we hurt one another. To redeem the ways we wound those we love the most. To redeem the ways we harm those who we treat as other and different and not worthy somehow. For me this is the power of Christ the King. To take what seems irredeemable and make it whole.
We aren’t charged with working out the details for others. We are not tasked with understanding the boundaries of heaven or Jesus’ love. Jesus has already done that heavy lifting for us. He did is as he walked the way to Calvary. He did it as he powerfully laid down his life there. And He marched out of the grave three days later offering that very tomb to us as a place to lay down our own guilt, our own shame and all the fear and ugliness that we hold in our hearts. We can leave it there, lay it down there in the dark of the tomb and turn to follow him alive, whole. Our Good Shepherd, Christ the King, who knows our name and calls us.
Bob Hetherington in a staff meeting recently talked about the ending of the church year being a time we can take stock. A time to take a look at where we have come since the year before. When I look back at my year I see some ways I was able to grow into a fuller understanding of the boundlessness of God’s love and that makes me glad. But I also see things I have done and left undone, beliefs about others and myself that are hurtful, things I need to lay down in the dark of the tomb. And on this New Year’s Eve of the church year, I hope I will be able to lay that down and then I will ask God what it is that he might have me pick up again. What can we lay down? What can we carry again to show forth God’s love not only with our lips but in our lives in this new church year?
Thank God through the length of our days, from season to season and round again of our Church year, we are enabled to keep growing into the knowledge of the love of Christ’s kingdom. Thank God that we get in our cars and steer ourselves down River Road and find ourselves here again Sunday after Sunday so that that we my sing his praise within his house forever. Thank God for Christ our King, the Good Shepherd, the King of Love, whose goodness fails us never.