SCRIPTURE LESSON: John 18: 33-37

Growing up in a democracy, everything I knew about royalty came from watching Cinderella’s prince sweep her off her feet. That and playing King of the Hill. Princes were for marrying. But being king was everything.

If you played this game as a child, you know that the king was the quickest kid or the most aggressive one, whoever got to the top of the knoll or wood pile first. Male or female, this child was crowned king. Sadly, the king rarely got to enjoy his or her throne. They were too busy fending off threats.

Now if this king-kid was crafty, if this mini-monarch was strategic, he or she went into the game with allies already lined up—friends who had agreed ahead of time to flank the king and defend him or her. Whoever dealt with the king’s usurpers, whoever shoved them away and protected the king could expect to be rewarded with a piece of bubble gum later or a cut in the lunch line.

King of the Hill is one of the many ways we entertained ourselves as children. It’s also how we learned the way the world so often works. What were the weeks and months following the most recent Presidential election except a costly, even deadly game of King of the Hill?

On now to our lesson. This morning has us listening in on exchange between Pilate and Jesus. Behind the words, behind the men who speak them, is a collision of two kingdoms. One is an earthly empire of push and shove, seizing and maintaining power, deals cut and enemies done in. The other realm is divinely ordained, a kingdom of genuine peace, mutuality, justice, and love.

This moment between the two men is what we might call the beginning of Jesus’ end. As governor of Judea, it will fall to Pilate to reckon with Jesus now that the religious elites have turned him over. Caiaphas and the others want Jesus dead but their faith prohibits them from executing him themselves.

Today is the final Sunday of the Christian year. The church calls this day Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. Today we are invited to consider how, as mighty and monolithic as they may seem, as mighty and monolithic as they may insist they are, every worldly system or realm is ultimately temporary, even the ones that stand for centuries.

Anyone who suffers at the hands of worldly power finds hope in today’s celebration. Reign of Christ Sunday, Christ the King Sunday affirms that no form of governance, no matter what it might believe about itself, can or will prevail.

Anyone who feels oppressed by the empire of the day, whoever is regarded by it as expendable or inconsequential, whoever feels that they are viewed as little more than a threat because they have the audacity to exist or the courage to push back, anyone like this can find hope and help on a day like today.

Across the country right now, there are people of all ages and colors who—in light of Friday’s verdict in Kenosha, Wisconsin—are reaffirming their citizenship in Jesus’ realm. They are looking to their King for the truth and justice that sadly did not come from a courthouse this week. And they pray—not only with their mouths but with their feet—for the coming of Jesus’ kingdom. “On earth as it is in heaven,” is ever on their lips.

Whether we have been subjected to the inequities and capricious acts of a worldly kingdom or have been concerned bystanders to these realities, you and I may be tempted to imagine that once upon a time or in a time yet to come we humans will craft and hone a form of governance that is fair and just. Fairer and more just, perhaps. But certainly not as fair and just as the one Jesus has in mind for us all.

The realm Jesus came to establish and oversee isn’t a kingdom so much as it is a kin-dom, a way of being that has us regard others as our kin, equally cherished members of a family that spans the globe and transcends time.

To say Jesus is the ruler of this realm, to crown him our king, is to remember that Jesus did not and does not arrive at this place of honor by force of will, by blind ambition, by backdoor agreements, or by gathering up an army. Then and now, Jesus has no flag to plant on a mountain top, foreign or domestic. He has no interest in following the playbook of worldly kingdoms or earthly rulers.

Just as Jesus stood alone before Pilate, he often stands alone in this vision of a way to ruling, a way of being a people that places everyone on level ground, that shines the light of belovedness on every person.

Even Jesus’ own disciples fell prey to the human playbook of power over rather than power with. Of hierarchy shoving equality out of the way. Jesus’ closest friends expected he that he would mount an attack on the empire, that he would marshall an army, topple Rome, and usher in a peaceable kingdom. As if his peace could ever be the child of violence, the spoils of war.

Jesus sought out mountaintops. To pray. To offer wisdom and challenge. But he never showed an ounce of interest in clawing his way to the top. Jesus was a king of an altogether different sort.

When I was a kid, the boxer Mohammed Ali was often in the public eye. He was a great athlete. The greatest if you asked him. I remember often being embarrassed by his strutting, by his bold assertions about himself. Somehow I knew that true greatness didn’t need to announce itself. That it would be apparent to all.

When we say Jesus is king–not the lords of this world–the claim we are making reflects what we know to be true about Jesus, about his essence, his calling and his character.

Pilate couldn’t coax Jesus into modifying himself. And neither could Judas, who tried his best to convince Jesus to be something, someone, other than who he was.

Let’s think for a minute about Jesus’ exchange with Pilate today. He says to the governor of Judea that his kingdom is not of this world. We can easily misunderstand him and imagine that he’s insisting he is otherworldly and so is his vision for us.

Perhaps what Jesus means is that how he rules, the way his realm functions, is vastly different than what we have seen here on earth. His is a divinely different way, not the old ways hashed and rehashed, where some win and others lose, where things like force, subterfuge, bias, and privilege keep everything in check.

Standing before Pilate, Jesus is already king. King not because God threw a purple cloak over his shoulders. Not because he has an ounce of earthly power. Standing before Pilate, indeed standing before us, Jesus is king because it’s simply the truth of who he is. It’s his essence. His God-given identity.

This truth was on full display from the very beginning. Even when Jesus was but a warm bundle in his mother’s arms, his rare and royal identity was obvious. The mighty traveled great distances and knelt before him, their expensive gifts no match for the treasure he was.

Later, when Jesus had just crossed over from childhood into manhood, his essence, his true identity would be on display at the temple steps. Learned men who heard him speak about God, about the deep meaning of scriptures, these men would see in young Jesus the king that he already was, a king who needed no scepter, no palace. A king who only needed to be fully and completely himself.

From the very beginning to the bitter end, Jesus would stay true to his essence, his identity.

But the truth he was bent on sharing was not a glorious truth about himself. Unlike any royal or ruler we have ever seen, Jesus stepped out of the spotlight so that it could shine on others. So that we all might see the truth about their identity, their worth, their royal nature as God’s sons and daughters. The bruised and battered, the lost the lonely—all were worthy, all were priceless.

No wonder some in Jesus’ world were threatened. No wonder others plotted. People in full possession of their beauty and belovedness, people who have claimed the truth of their God-given essence and identity are dangerous. They put systems and structures at risk.

Isn’t this why those who insist “Black Lives Matter” are threatening? Isn’t this why some are offended when those in the margins, including the LGBTQ community, dare to refer to themselves and others as King and Queen?

Tomorrow night at the Ute Indian Museum, we will gather with friends old and new to bear witness to King Jesus and his not-of-this world realm. We won’t be doing this directly, overtly. After all, we are hosting a vigil not a religious revival.

With today’s scripture in mind, with Jesus’ utter commitment to being who and what as, with his commitment to uncovering and honoring each person’s essence and identity, we will be gathering at the Ute to lift up the almost 50 transgendered and gender-non-conforming kin who, because they dared to live into the truth of their identity, paid for their boldness and bravery with their very lives last year.

Jesus will meet us at the Ute. He will be there—but not hogging the spotlight, not prancing up front where we can all admire him.

No, Jesus will be there in the light of the caring glances we exchange, in the gleam of tears we shed, in the silence we share, and in the solemn tolling of the chime as the name and memory of one of his now-departed kin, each one of our kin, is lifted up with reverence.

Whoever gathers tomorrow night will find Jesus waiting. This King who sought the lowest places, not the highest. This King who can’t help but speak the truth in love. This King who calls each person by name, calls us out of the shadows and into the light. Into the bright beauty of our God-given essence, our identity, our inherent belovedness.

Every time this happens, as it surely will tomorrow night, Jesus’ realm becomes more real. Every time this happens, we fall under the sway of his powerful, just, and expansive love. Every time this happens, we enter his growing kin-dom. As we should. And as we pray.

Amen.