« "Provoking One Another" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

"A Rose by Any Other Name" - The Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland »

Christ the King Sunday - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on November 25, 2018 by Kathy Miller

John 18:33-37

Christ the King Sunday

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

November 25, 2018


I’ll admit to being one of those Americans who is fascinated by British royalty.  I don’t mean that I collect souvenirs or read the daily tabloids about what Megan Markle wore yesterday (though I have on occasion).  But I do have a general fascination about how royalty lives and has lived throughout history.  I find the tradition of a few people being catered to, and often coddled by everyone else, interesting.  The history of the lengths servants and subjects have gone to provide for the comfort of their monarch.  Things like: cooking all their meals to exact specifications and wishes, laying out their clothes and helping them to dress, putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush for them, driving them everywhere, having someone who manages all their bills and household decisions so they don’t need to be bothered.  Now, I know they obviously have other responsibilities and duties that the rest of us don’t, but the amount of comfort provided for their lives is astounding.  The number of people who work to make their lives comfortable is extraordinary.  Right now, there are around 400 staff at Buckingham Palace all doing their best to keep the royals comfortable, privileged lives running smoothly.


And though none of us are royalty, we live in a time of human history in which we have an unprecedented degree of comfort.  The average American lives with greater comfort than many of history’s wealthiest kings.  We, with our running water, our heated homes, our plentiful food on grocery shelves, and cars and planes to take us quickly to destinations in all kinds of weather. On top of all those basic comforts, we also have things like: lazy boy chairs and sleep number beds for our sitting and sleeping, tv’s and phones for our immediate and endless entertainment, spa days for massages and other treatments.  So, we are used to comfort and a certain ease of many things. And when any of these things aren’t available, many of us have a fairly short fuse for the discomfort. 


But, for as much comfort as exists in our lives, eventually discomfort catches up with all of us.  At some point, no amount of trying can keep discomfort away, even for kings.  Eventually, all of us have bodies which begin to fail and falter.  And no amount of money or servants can keep discomfort of the mind away when loneliness or sadness or anxiety comes in.  At some point, the quick fixes, the easy comfort no longer works.


Most people in Jerusalem, and even the disciples, were hoping Jesus would be their quick fix, their road to greater comfort. Because the disciples and others thought Jesus was going to become King bringing them a life of comfort and being catered to by others.  They were hoping to ride his coattails to a life free of the dusty roads and the stone pillows and the hard labor.  The scripture we read today happens shortly after Jesus’ Palm Sunday ride into Jerusalem where people called out his name, bowed down to him and spread their cloaks in the streets.  It was easy to imagine a life of comfort and ease was on its way for Jesus’ followers. 


But, by the point of today’s reading, that vision has come down crashing and burning.  No longer does it seem that Jesus will be King of Israel.  When Pontius Pilate tries to get Jesus to admit to attempting an insurrection based on the crowds belief in him as a king, Jesus explains how he is a different kind of king from a very different kingdom. While Jesus is all about alleviating pain and suffering – he ate with the poor, healed the sick and those with demons, showed kindness to those marginalized and restored sight to the blind – he is not so concerned with comfort and ease. Jesus was unlike any other king history has known as he rejected comfort, even chose discomfort, for himself.


Even with followers and disciples, Jesus hadn’t asked to be treated differently than anyone else.  Though he was offered money and comfortable places to stay along the road to Jerusalem, he kept moving on that dusty road, sleeping in strange places.  He allowed the crowds to take all his time and energy.  He spent 40 days in the desert being tempted and fasting.  He kept speaking truth to power despite the discomforting and growing conflict it was causing.  And, even in Jerusalem, greeted like a King, as discomfort changed to pain and suffering, he continued to stay the course all the way to the cross.  Far from seeking out comfort, Jesus accepted discomfort as a part of human life.  It was an intentional choice he made to not always, or even often, seek his own comfort.  Discomfort was a discipline he kept, a spiritual practice from which he learned a great deal. 


Now, allow me to clarify before we go further.  There have been a lot of different movements within Christianity over the years which took the discipline of discomfort very seriously and sometimes to the extreme.  Whether it was the Puritans or early ascetics, the idea of denying oneself any physical pleasure and even putting the body through things like long periods of fasting or isolation have cropped up regularly in our faith. And certainly, there are those prophets and saints who have followed those deprivations and then expounded their virtues. But, these kinds of extreme physical discomforts can not only be dangerous, they raise the question of why God would give us bodies with the ability to enjoy so many pleasures and then not want us to ever experience them.  To live in constant deprivation and to demonize the body as something evil cannot God’s intention for us.  Jesus himself spent time eating with friends.  He allowed Mary to anoint him with expensive oil.  He often seemed to enjoy being a human. 


So, while extreme discomfort is not the goal, perhaps extreme comfort is not either.   But it does seem to be the goal for so many people today - to live the very most comfortable life possible and whenever discomfort arrives try to get through it or around it as quickly as possible? 


But Jesus’ life shows us there are at least three important things that experience with discomfort can teach us.


The first is empathy.  Sometimes people simulate discomfort in order to gain a sense of empathy.  For example, churches or non-profits who host evenings in cold weather where people volunteer to sleep outside all night to experience what it would be like to be homeless. Or the popular church event called 30-hour famine which raises money to fight hunger while its participants experience being hungry.


Or something a member of Covenant shared with me of an experience her pharmaceuticals company invited employees to participate in.  It was the opportunity to go through a 24 or 48 hour simulation which would work to give you the symptoms patients on their medications had.  So, to experience say, having rheumatoid arthritis, participants would put marbles in their shoes, tape things onto their bodies so they had to sit or lie down in different positions and use a phone app that woke them up constantly in the night or told them to do certain things during the day, like get up much earlier than normal because it would take you so much longer to get ready for your day.  By the end of the experience most participants can’t wait to empty their shoes, tear off the taped on objects and shut down that phone app.  But in being able to go “back to normal” they have hopefully learned something significant about what it is like to live with the discomfort or pain of that disease. 


And while there is surely some value in these simulations, the way most of us learn empathy for others is to have an actual experience of something uncomfortable or hard happen to us.  None of us will ever have the exact same experience as another person, but from being cold or hungry or tired to having broken a bone, or gone through a surgery, or lived with some kind of chronic pain, or lost someone or something important to you, or felt a deep sadness or so many other human experiences, we learn to truly relate and connect to other people.  This doesn’t work with toddlers, who don’t understand yet that others also feel discomfort, but once we are old enough to understand other people feel those things too, we can use our experiences to reach out to others to offer the kinds of comfort that helped us and it makes us more aware of how to not add to other people’s discomfort – what not to say or do. 


A second thing discomfort can teach us is how to pay better attention to the world.  When we are totally comfortable, it is easy to become complacent.  When our bellies are full and our basic needs are met and we can stare at a TV all day, it is easy to get so used to being comfortable that staying comfortable becomes the greatest priority.   We start wanting to do anything we can to protect our comfort, even when it starts to be at the expense of others.  Experiences of discomfort wake us up, prod us to examine things more closely, get a better understanding of injustice.  In more serious examples of discomfort are things like someone who doesn’t think there is a problem with our health care system until they lose the job that provided it for them and have a very different experience or the person who doesn’t think our criminal justice system is broken until they have something happen where they or a loved one spend time in the courts or in a prison. Sometimes our practice of discomfort is just listening to the stories of other people and trying to really hear them, even when it makes us squirm a little bit because it challenges things we thought we knew.    


And finally, a third things discomfort can teach us is how to stay in touch with our spirit and our connection to the holy in all kinds of different situations.  If we allow ourselves to experience discomfort, we can look for how God is with us in those times.  We can learn how to talk to God in those times.  We can learn what our spirit needs in the midst of discomfort to not give up all hope.  And in practicing this in times of small or brief discomforts, we may have an easier time identifying God’s presence with us when discomfort lasts longer or even when we face real pain or suffering.  But if we spend all our time trying to avoid discomfort in every way possible, then when the times come that we cannot avoid, we have no experience, no practice holding on to hope, or sensing God’s presence and our spirit can end up in dire straits. 


We are meant to be Jesus’ disciples – to follow Jesus’ example.  And the word disciples comes from the same root as the word discipline.  We are called to be people of discipline.  People who choose to do things that may be more difficult for a purpose.  I don’t mean we suffer or seek out discomfort for no reason.  I don’t mean bragging to others about how much discomfort you can manage or feeling superior when you see someone else struggling to manage their discomfort.


But this is an invitation to not always run from discomfort.  When discomfort presents itself, try to consider the things it has to teach you.  To try to seek God’s presence even there.  To try to imagine how other people who have gone through something similar and made it through have done so.  To try and find hope there.  Look for others who can empathize.  Turn to God for strength.  


The next time you are uncomfortable, look for how God is present to you – in loved ones or people who come to your aid, in a sudden sense of strength or a moment of stillness or something that seems like a sign.  Practice discomfort enough to increase your empathy.  Practice discomfort enough to know your hope will not come to an end in the face of something greater.  Practice discomfort enough to know God will never leave you, even in the deepest, darkest place.  And may the practice of discomfort teach us a great deal about how to offer comfort to one another and how to recognize God’s comfort in each day.


And in this practice, may we come to know Jesus as a very different kind of King – not a king who demands to be comforted and coddled, but one who has known the discomforts and challenges of this human existence and whose empathy for us is greater than we can imagine.  And may we offer that King our praise and thanks.  Amen.

Contact Us