Oh We Love Our Kings
by Kathy Escobar
Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week on the road toward Easter. I also call Holy week "It's not what we think week". I decided to blog every day this week, until the day after Easter Sunday as a spiritual practice for myself, to remember the story, to draw back on some thoughts I’ve written before, and most of all to reflect on Jesus through the lens of rocking the establishment in ways we continue to struggle with.
Like Advent and the anticipation of Jesus’ birth, I love the upside-downness of the Easter story even though I know it can also be a hard season for many. Jesus, the promised king, all grown up, enters Jerusalem to a roar of “Hosannas!” and the thrill of impending victory. People were excited, inspired, drawn, hopeful. They were ready for him to kick butt and take names, topple the empire and restore justice.
He’ll make all that was wrong right.
But as the week progresses, things radically shifted. He had stirred the pot too strongly. He’d upset too many apple carts. He challenged the status quo far too deeply.
He did all kinds of un-king-like things.
He touched lepers.
He dined with sinners.
He called out religiosity on its hypocrisy.
He told everybody they needed to be last, not first.
He said that love transcended all.
That the way up toward God was to go down to the places of real life, real pain.
That God desired mercy, not sacrifice.
Then, next thing they knew he was washing feet, talking about dying, telling us we needed each other in all of this.
Wait a second! This wasn’t the kind of king-like behavior we were hoping for.
Things went bad to worse after the foot washing. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to die. Then, instead of getting off the cross and saving the day that way, he actually died.
Right there in front of them.
He was sacrificed. He appeared powerless, defeated.
All that excitement for nothing.
Some king he was!
Sure, we know a few days later, the tides turned yet again and he wasn’t dead, but alive. Appearing to his friends, telling them some of the same crazy things he had been telling them before he died. The spirit of God, alive and well, at work in people’s lives ever since.
However, the truth is that it’s always been a confusing story. One that makes us scratch our heads a little and wonder “why did God choose to do it this way when there were a lot of better, more clear, easier-to-understand, more-king-like options?”
As I reflect on the beginning of Holy Week and our journey toward Easter, many of the same human dynamics are at play today, maybe now more than ever in the story of North American Christianity. Sociology is powerful. Our demands for strong, powerful, charismatic, certain leaders is alive and well. Look around at big rocking churches. There aren’t a lot of people leading them who are washing other people’s feet, dining with lepers, and telling mind-boggling, confusing stories that has everyone shaking their head, going “huh?”
Rather, what makes most of them strong is their certainty, their power, their charisma, their “king-like” qualities.
My theory is that we are still desperately looking for a king who makes more sense than Jesus because he’s not the kind of king we want.
Instead we desperately look to pastors, leaders, podcasts, writers, speakers, someone to tell us what to do and think, what’s okay and not okay, what the scripture says and doesn’t say, who’s in and who’s out, who’s better and worse.
We are drawn to power and charisma not the Beatitudes-infused kindness Jesus embodied and preached, but a worldly power that keeps us insured so we can feel more protected, comfortable, contained.
But the gospel was never supposed to be protected, comfortable, or contained. Or inspiring in a sit-and-listen-and-feel-better-afterward kind of way.
What makes it the gospel is its wildness, rawness, unexpectedness, and challenge to us. That God shows up in the least likely places instead of the most. That he pierces the darkness with inexplicable light. That grace doesn’t make sense. That we should follow his weird and wild ways, not human’s self-serving ones. That in order to be born again (and again) we need to die yet again (and then over again).
As I reflect on this current season in politics and church, it feels so clear how desperate we are for an earthly king. I am sometimes, too. I want someone to swoop in and tell me what to do and rescue me from my doubts and questions. I want someone to put me and God and the whole kit and caboodle back in a box so my faith can somehow be more manageable like it used to be.
But then the feeling always subsides, and I realize I do have a king.
A humble one, who says that I'm blessed when I realize my spiritual poverty (not when I’ve got it all nailed down).
A gentle one, who whispers to me that he understands my pain & struggle because he was human, too.
A wild and crazy one, who keeps reminding me that his ways will always be counter-cultural and harder but also better.
A not-the-way-kings-usually-look king, who says he’s not here to boss me around and make all my troubles go away, but rather that he'd be present in the midst of them.
A counter-cultural king, who calls me to spiritual poverty, mourning, mercy, meekness, justice and love as the path to freedom.
My hope is that over time we’d learn to quit crowning earthly kings, giving our time and money and souls to them, thinking they will save the day.
They never will.
Rather, I hope we can pick up our crosses and follow the one who really can.