A reading from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John, verses 33-37:
Then Pilate, entering the headquarters again, summons Jesus and asks him, "Are you the King of the Judeans?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I'm not a Judean, 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 Judeans, but as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I'm 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."
The Gospel of the Lord.
If we'd read a little farther, we would have heard Pilate's question, which is so filled with cynicism and emotional exhaustion, "What is truth?"
According to the fourth Gospel, the Truth in person was standing right in front of him, waiting to be discerned. Pilate's missed opportunity to answer his own question raises an interesting question for us: Who and what was really on trial there?
Christ, the real king, whom we celebrate as such today in our churches--this feast of Christ the King--Christ is standing before a Roman judge being tried with the full agreement of the religious authorities.
What's wrong with this picture?
The religious authorities of the city had agreed with their pagan enemy that it makes sense to oppress some people on behalf of other people.
It takes little imagination to realize that this passage is telling us that Jesus is not the real defendant--in this scene Jesus is both the plaintiff and he's the judge. Too bad if you're against him, even if your side appears to be winning just now, even if you're nice and religious, even if you're a community leader. If you're against him, you're likely the real defendant. You need mercy.
Well, that was then. Thank God it's over. The jury is back in on that trial--and Pilate and Caiaphas lost. Jesus won.
Now Jesus sits at the right hand of God in glory looking down to admire how well we're doing. Right? Well, don't bet the ranch just yet.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews told us that "We do not yet see all things in subjection under his feet."
The poet Swinburne might have argued with that passage. Complaining about the dull respectability of Victorian England, he cried, "Thou has triumphed, O pale Galilean! The whole world is grown grey at thy breath!"
Leaving those two to fight it out, let's suppose that the real issue lies elsewhere.
No, things are not yet in subjection under his feet--because all things remain on trial. And many of those who turn the world gray occupy Pilate's seat and wear Caiaphas' robes. And Jesus remains daily on trial for his life, headed for jail or death.
No, I'm not trying to sound poetic--just sort of fundamentalist, I guess.
See, there are places in the Gospels where Jesus appears real serious about things that we take much less seriously. For example, in the middle of a power struggle between his followers, Jesus took a street urchin, wrapped his arms around him, and said, "Whoever welcomes one child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." The child must have been pretty low class because the disciples had been disputing their relative class statuses and Jesus needed a startling object lesson to thrust at them.
Now, we have a lot of those children in our streets. And we have millions more children who may live in houses but lack adequate nutrition in this the world's wealthiest nation. We have still millions more children in this country who have no health insurance.
If Jesus meant what he said, then Jesus himself is on our streets as a child; he's ill-fed with untreated infections on his feet.
We're on trial.
There's another terrifying passage that we read on this Sunday last year. It gets called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats--but it's not a parable, it's a direct prophecy. In it, Jesus unequivocally identifies himself with people in jail, sick people, poorly clothed people, unhoused, aliens, and (we Atlantans might surmise these days) with no place to go to the bathroom.
Does that sound like anybody you know? Probably not anybody you know personally. But you know who Jesus is talking about. We think of poor people and homeless people as a social problem. We dread them as though each of them wanted to put his straw into our Coke. Would it make any difference to know that Jesus thinks those people are himself? Not to judge by our current discourse--even at political rallies opened with prayer.
Beloved, you and I are on trial.
Christ the King, unseen among us, is the aggrieved plaintiff. He is also the judge.
We need mercy.
Let me tell you about something that's going on in Atlanta just now. Not that Atlanta is unique; it's pretty likely something like this is going on near you. It's just that Atlanta is the city I know best. I want to go into considerable detail about it. Course the alternative would be simply to give you a list of the burdens you and I lay on the poor--like the horror that welfare reform has unleashed or our Draconian vagrancy laws which criminalize simply being poor. But to look at one matter's complexity rather than to survey the field may keep our eyes from glazing over.
Your city and mine have operations called "labor pools." The more you learn about such operations, the more you wonder if we ever really abolished slavery in this country. Let me tell you how one of our big ones operates in Atlanta:
When the guys go at 4:00 a.m. to wait for a job, they may wait several hours, but if they don't get there early, they won't get a place in line. They may be transported way out to Lawrenceville to work in a shopping mall, and they might not begin work until 9:00 o'clock or so, which means they aren't paid at all for the waiting or for the transportation time, even though all that time they were technically employed by the Labor Pool. They are charged by the drivers who are usually not professionally licensed to transport people, to get them on the first load--five dollars to, five dollars from the job--and in addition to that illegal under-the-table charge, advocates have collected dozens of work tickets, that is, pay stubs, from one Labor Pool showing $7.00 a day withheld for transportation. Now that's illegal by statute. They're also charged for gloves, hard hats, whatever else they need. Again, that's illegal by a statute that the State of Georgia refuses to enforce.
Frequently the men work alongside union workers, doing much the same work. And for years, they have reported, "We get treated like janitors!" It turns out that they are CODED on their paychecks as janitors or other than the construction workers they are. So, they get no credit for the skilled work towards an eventual union ticket. The Labor Pool or any employer must pay workman's comp insurance, and there is a job code for reporting the type of job, with the amount paid into the fund commensurate with the level of the employment, particularly with the level of danger or risk. The Labor Pool pays less if it codes the homeless man's work "janitorial" rather than "bricklayer." The men don't really know the difference because they're not told the codes. At the end of a long day, the worker gets back to the Labor Pool and turns in his hours and gets a pay slip, at which time he's offered either a check for the day?s work written on a bank in Tacoma, Washington, which he will have to cash around the corner at the liquor store or with the driver waiting to collect for the stuff. If he wants cash, he's given a PIN number for the day, and he goes to a cash machine called a CTM instead of an ATM. The machine charges him one dollar for the transaction and any part of a dollar he has earned, rounding his pay DOWN to the nearest dollar. If he earns $50.99, he gets $49.00. That little gimmick alone earns the Labor Pool $7 million profit each year.
Our local government is implicated in all this. They push parolees toward the labor pools re-arresting those who don't find work quickly. If re-arrested on vagrancy charges, erstwhile parolees will still wind up back in labor pools, this time with the jail collecting their pay. Finally, a prominent local bank in Atlanta owns and operates the CTM machines and is heavily invested in the Tacoma bank which fronts this operation. You won't read much about this in our local newspaper because our paper couldn't hit the street every day without the cheap labor that the pools provide so they're not about to investigate it.
Now, let me explain the point of that mess. Jesus is standing in those lines at 4 a.m. Now, my investment portfolio probably supports that corrupt local bank since most of its operations appear respectable. My wife, for example, has an account at that bank, and she says the tellers are all pretty courteous. So, I'm implicated in enslaving Jesus. Now, I'm not telling you this to titillate your guilt and I'm not brave enough to want to make you mad. In any event, anger and guilt don't often result in positive outcomes. I want to join with you in the realization that you and I are on trial and that you and I need mercy. And here is the deepest scandal of the gospel. Christ is your king too, not just the homeless laborers. How on earth could we expect his mercy? And how might that look?
The first few chapters of Exodus are interesting in this connection. We're told the Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of their slavery, their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.
The Hebrew people oppressed under Pharaoh also numbered Hebrew supervisors who oppressed their fellows on behalf of the Egyptians in return for an extra pittance.
Yet all alike cried out to God for relief, the oppressors and the oppressed. And God had mercy on all of them, slave and supervisor, the innocent and the implicated alike. All were led across the waters, rescued, given a national charter, which among its other stipulations, told them not to treat each other that way any more.
Today you and I are Pilate and Caiaphas. We think we can dispense or withhold mercy when, in fact, we need much more mercy than we can dispense. You and I normally try to solve the problem of our complicity and injustice by not thinking about it very much, or we get mad at people who hold these nasty realities up to us--shooting the messenger, it's called. Or we get mad at the oppressors on behalf of the poor from behind our gated communities, sort of a moral free lunch. None of that helps very much. Our dilemma is deeper. Before any godly corrective measures can occur to us, we have to be clear about our situation and we have to grieve at it. We have to permit ourselves to suffer the embarrassment of our caughtness in financial and political lash-ups we can neither control nor easily abandon.
What do we do? We grieve before the Lord on our own hooks and on behalf of our society. We can resolve to try to think as God thinks. We can holler out to Christ the King from the bottom of our caughtness and our embarrassment at it. We can stand before Jesus embarrassed, on trial. No godly corrective measure can occur to us north of that self-abjection before our king and judge. Anything easier that might occur to us is simply evasive. But if we cry out to Christ the King for his mercy and pardon, what surprises might the one who even occasionally dined with the wealthy have in store for people like us? Amen.
Let's pray together. O, God, so pour out your spirit on us and so fill us with the very life of God that in all our dealings with every fellow creature we might recognize our divine kinship. Let your spirit dissolve the walls, break down the walls that divide us one from another. Give us grace to trust your mercy that we might have the courage to follow your commandments. We ask all this in Jesus' name and for his glory. Amen.