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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Last Sunday after Pentecost: The Feast of Christ the King
November 22, 2015

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Let us pray.

Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise
. Amen.

“For this I was born,” Jesus proclaims, “and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Face to face with a powerful official of Roman rule and hours away from being tortured and killed, Jesus might seem to us at first as a bold and defiant revolutionary. Yet Jesus’ appeal to the truth in his exchange with Pilate can be somewhat misleading. In how he addresses Pilate’s questions, Jesus is anything but the shameless, transparent martyr we might imagine him as or like him to be, eager to challenge the status quo because he has nothing at all to lose. Jesus’ cagey answers and skillful dodging of the questions at hand are reminiscent not of outspoken prophets or brave vigilantes, but of politicians running for president, who, doing all they can to avoid any slip in their poll numbers, offer canned, pre-formulated answers, devised by armies of advisers in advance and not really answering the question at all.

Pilate asks, “are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus wonders why he is asking. Pilate tries to find out what Jesus has done to receive the opposition he has, and Jesus offers a lecture on how his kingdom is not from this world. When Pilate tries a final time to find out if Jesus is a king, Jesus turns the question back around, declaring to Pilate, “you say that I am a king” and muttering something about the truth. Jesus does not appear to want Pilate to know anything about him at all. On the contrary, Jesus seems interested in confusing Pilate and obstructing Pilate’s access to him. Jesus does everything he can to prevent Pilate from obtaining the information that he desires.

Many of you know that my partner, Grant, recently began teaching science to high-school special ed students in the Washington, DC public school system. In preparation for his debut as a full-time teacher this fall, Grant was required to undergo new teacher training this past summer to learn everything he could about being the best instructor he could be. New teacher training is all-consuming and intense, so whenever Grant would come to visit me here in Norwalk or whenever I would travel down to Washington to visit him, he would never really leave teacher-training mode. Whether I liked it or not, then, I learned much this summer about effective teaching methods, and every so often, Grant would experiment with them on me, his most difficult student.

It seemed like every time I saw Grant there was a new teaching technique that he wanted to try out. One week, it was “What-to-Do Directions,” a strategy that involved giving simple, concrete instructions, broken down step-by-step. Another week, it was “3-2-1,” a short countdown a teacher can use to get a student’s attention. But by far, Grant’s favorite technique this summer was called “Do Not Engage.” The principle behind “Do Not Engage” is that teachers should not allow students to distract in any way from their learning objectives. A student may attempt to lure a teacher away from the main focus of a lesson by calling attention to another student’s behavior or an otherwise interesting subject outside of the lesson’s purview. The technique of “Do Not Engage” encourages the teacher to ignore the student’s proposed detour and persist in his or her original intentions. In other words, “Do Not Engage” tries to ensure that the student’s agenda will not take precedence over the teacher’s and that the teacher will remain in control. “Do Not Engage” may aim in part to eradicate obstacles to student learning and make class more efficient, but it also is at its heart about concentrating power and exercising it wisely.[1]

The fact that “Do Not Engage” can help solidify one’s power, I would like to argue, is precisely why Jesus chooses to use it. I don’t think Jesus’ evades Pilate’s questions because he is unsure of what the correct answers are or is afraid of what Pilate will do to him. Indeed, in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, Jesus does not appear to be a helpless, terrified victim. Rather, he seems cool, calm, collected, fully in control. He does not answer Pilate’s questions because he does not want to give Pilate power over him, because he does not want Pilate to win. In the contest between two wills, Jesus hopes to prove himself stronger; Jesus aims to emerge as the one in charge. His refusal to answer is no weak hesitation or cowering in fear; it is an instrument of victory.

I suspect this concept may be difficult for many of us to grasp. However we train our teachers, for the most part we do not live in a “Do Not Engage” culture. We are all about engagement—in every sense of the word. We keep our selves busy: if there’s an extra spot available on our calendar, we fill it; if we have a spare moment or two in our day free, we make sure to put it to good use. We keep our minds active, finishing crossword and sodoku puzzles, scanning Facebook and Twitter and cable news for the latest headlines, never missing a text or an email. And we make sure our bodies never have too much time to rest—staying up until all hours of the night and waking up God knows how early in the morning, counting our steps, biking to work, and never forgetting to put our time in on the cross-trainer or the treadmill. We know how to add things to our “to do” list, but we don’t know how to take things off—how to choose not to engage.

I don’t want to suggest that engagement is always bad. Jesus himself was often brave and decisive, calling out his opponents, making radical, outlandish statements, acting in ways that no one else would dare. And today we celebrate engagement, officially welcoming the newer among us as they formally join this community, and blessing the financial pledges that all of us have offered to sustain the work of this beautiful place. At the same time, so much of our world is currently in need of healthy engagement that advances the causes of justice, understanding and peace. I think of how the divisiveness and violence in our nation and our world beg for the work of courageous souls who can direct our society towards better ways of living with each other.  I think of citizens who have spoken out for the human rights of refugees; I think of students who in the past few days have rightly called attention to the persistence of systematic racism and inequality. We need engagement; engagement can bring about many good things for our communities and the world.

Still, I wonder if we too often overlook the value in certain circumstances of taking a step back and showing restraint. Power, after all, isn’t only exercised through bold proclamations and loud pomposity. Power isn’t always about the thousand thousands serving you and the ten thousand times ten thousand standing, ready to attend your every need. Power is also about the ways in which you hold back, the ways in which you don’t give your enemy an opportunity to win, the ways in which you choose not to engage. The Christ we call a King, the Christ with a Reign that has no end, never fired a gun, never led an army, never drew a sword. When interrogated by the Roman governor, he didn’t even defend himself with words. He died brutally, helplessly, shamefully—utterly defeated—on a cross. And yet here we stand today shouting his praises, singing to him in hymns, bowing even at the very mention of his name. If that’s not power, I don’t know what is.[2]

[1] The technique “Do Not Engage” is mentioned in Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion. For clarification of the method, I consulted the summary found here:–%20Teach%20Like%20a%20Champion%20–%207-10(2).pdf, among other sources.

[2] This shape and content of this final paragraph owes some credit to James Allen Francis’ famous short book One Solitary Life.

Categories: Sermons