The thread | November 25

Texts: John 18:33-38a, Revelation 1:4-8

Speaker: Joel Miller

William Stafford was a pacifist and a poet.  He died August, 1993.  That month, perhaps knowing death was near, he wrote this poem, which he called, “The Way It Is.”

There is a thread you follow. It goes among Things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread.  —William Stafford

Today is the day in the church calendar known as Christ the King Sunday.  Officially, it’s the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  Next week begins Advent, when themes of expectation and birth start the cycle all over again.  This is the church’s way of keeping time.

As William Stafford observes – over the course of life, “tragedies happen; people get hurt or die.  Nothing you do can stop times unfolding.”  This past year has been no exception.  Yet, there is a thread that goes among things that change.

One of our readings is from the book of Revelation.  Appropriately, the last book of our Bible.  The author, John, as he calls himself, has been exiled to the island of Patmos.  He writes this letter to seven churches across Asia Minor, present day Turkey.  It’s a difficult time for these churches.  Revelation is a vision, a dream, about the nonviolent Christ, the lamb as it’s envisioned, and the violence of empire, Rome, and all those it enlists to exert its power.  Wondrously, it’s the lamb who emerges victorious through the hard slog of history.  This is good news for these little churches, committed to the peaceful way of Jesus, living in the shadow of empire.

John greets the seven churches by writing: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.

And there it is, right from the beginning.  The thread.  The thread you can trace back into the past, the thread you hope remains for the future.  The thread you hold in the present.  For John, the thread is Jesus the Christ and everything he represents to humanity.  For John, this is more than just a singular life with a birthday and crucifixion date.  Christ is the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Cosmically available for all.  A force unto itself.  A thread that runs through the troubled story of humanity.

There is a thread you follow. It goes among Things that change. But it doesn’t change.

Every Thanksgiving my family sits down for an end of the year recap.  We set aside a whole evening after the youngest generation is asleep.  We go around the circle one at a time, reflecting on the past year.  It’s the four of us siblings, our partners, and my parents.  Ten of us.

We’ve been doing this for a dozen years or so.  I’d like to say we time this annual review to coincide with the end of the liturgical calendar, but we’re not that tuned in.  It started when we all sat down for something more like a family meeting after my brother came out to us and was moving toward a covenant ceremony with his partner, back before this was legally recognized as a marriage.  It was a chance to hear from Luke and his journey, get to know Christian who would be joining our family, and provide some space for our parents to air their own uncertain thoughts as they came to terms with something they hadn’t imagined for themselves or their family.  We went around the circle and talked about our feelings.  If you’re a young person and are confused about why this might have even been a problem or something requiring a family meeting, I thank God for the new normal you’ve been raised with.

It was an important time, a sacred time.  Then we realized we didn’t need something that intense to give us an excuse to talk like that.  So we’ve established the family talk as a tradition, and Thanksgiving weekend has become the best time to do it.

Over the years we’ve processed births, moves to new cities, parenting struggles and joys, work highs and lows, miscarriages, thoughts on retirement.  A lot happens for ten people over the course of a dozen years.  For me, that time has become a thread that goes among things that change.  It’s one of my favorite events of the year.

Over the years, it has become a thread that has better enabled us to stay tuned in to the thread of one another’s lives.

The poet says:

While you hold it you can’t get lost. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

This thread goes by different names: Love, family, our true self, Christ, Buddha nature, home, peace, Spirit.

While you hold it you can’t get lost. You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

Our Gospel reading puts into sharp focus what Revelation also reveals.  The thread of Christ, who is, and was, and is to come is not the only thread of the human story.  There are others.  There’s another power that would claim to be the line to which we must cling for security.

We see these two threads in Jesus’ encounter with Pilate, the Roman governor, in John’s Gospel.

Over the course of these verses, Pilate asks Jesus four questions. His questions are direct.  Jesus’ answers are indirect. Surprise.

Perhaps the first question was the only one Pilate was really interested in getting answered. “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus replies with a question of his own: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate is playing his part as the interrogator.  But, Jesus asks him, is this all he is doing?  Just playing out a role others have assigned him? Jesus is under arrest, but is Pilate really as free as he may think he is, asking the question on his own, or is he just one more prisoner confined to his narrow role given him by someone else?  Is Pilate just another thread in the mighty rope of empire, of whom Rome is merely the latest manifestation?

Pilate is not deterred. His next question is “What have you done?” Jesus answers this by pointing out what he has not done. What he has not done is call on his followers to fight for him, to protect him, to prevent him from being arrested. Jesus has not used violence. Even though this kingdom that he has been speaking about occupies the same time and space as the kingdom that Pilate serves, Jesus’ kingdom “is not from this world.”

Pilate skillfully jumps on the mention of a “kingdom” as a way of bringing it back to his original question, this one now his third: “So, you are a king?” The closest Jesus gets to answering whether or not he is a king is his response to this question. Jesus says, “You say that I am a king.”

One of the compelling aspects of this conversation is that we have some freedom in how we hear the questions of Pilate and the responses of Jesus. Whether they’re harsh. Whether or not Jesus is being sarcastic, ironic, speaking boldly or softly, looking Pilate in the eyes or at the ground or off in the distance, smiling, expressionless.

This flexibility of interpretation is no more present than Pilates’ fourth and final question of this exchange.  Pilate had been asking questions about power. Jesus comes out and finally says what he is all about. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

And there we have it.  Pilate, the man of imperial power, and Jesus the man of truth.  Two threads that run through history.

This prompts Pilate to ask a very different kind of question than the previous ones. “What is truth?” Which prompts us to wonder just what kind of question this might be.

Does Pilate have an admiration for the Greek philosophers and wish to hear Jesus’ take on the much-debated question? What is truth?

Has something Jesus said, or the way he said it, leapt into a deeper part of Pilate’s humanity and caused him to ask this question? – the world-weary Roman governor seeking spiritual insight from the mystical Jew? What is truth?

Or is this the cynical question of a powerful ruler who knows that the answer is plain as day? What is truth? Truth is what Pilate says it is – nothing more, nothing less.  The truth is that Jesus will soon be dead, sent by Pilate across town to be crucified, and Pilate will soon leave Jerusalem after the Passover festival, back to his base in Caesarea, one more successful episode under his belt of keeping the peace, doing his duty, fulfilling his role.

The innocent man from Nazareth dies a violent death.  And Pilate flips a sheet of paper on his desk and moves on to other business.

Regardless of how he inflects the questions, Pilates’ truth is that the puny thread of Jesus will be snapped, and the many threaded rope of Rome will endure.

Our truth is that today isn’t called “Pilate the King Sunday.”  And for all of its history, it’s not Pilate or Herod or Caesar that the church has exalted as the thread to which we hold.

There is a thread you follow. It goes among Things that change. But it doesn’t change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can’t get lost. Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old. Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding. You don’t ever let go of the thread. 

Whatever you call this thread, you must give it your attention and honor it with your life.  As we stand at the end of another liturgical year, it is this thread that has brought you here.  Which is, which was, which is to come.

If you have lost the thread, can’t find it for the life of you, hold on to someone holding on to the thread.  They will likely welcome the company.  If you can’t see anyone near you, cry out, “Help, I’ve lost the thread.”  This makes it easier for the thread to find you.

May your way be blessed.  May you find and follow the thread and may it take you places you would not otherwise have imagined going.