2 Samuel 23:1-7John 18:33-37
How many of you have had the opportunity to learn another language? How many of you have had the chance to practice that language in a region where it is spoken? It’s a humbling experience, isn’t it?
When Elizabeth and I were in mission service with the Presbyterian Church, we had many chances to meet colleagues who were serving in various parts of the world. Eventually, the subject would turn to embarrassing language stories. One missionary, serving in the South Pacific, was trying to make light of a traffic altercation between a truck and a cow; instead, he botched his grammar and made explicit remarks to a woman standing nearby. Another, trying to praise his Egyptian cab driver, used a different regional accent and called him a water buffalo. Let’s just say he was let off early. And yet another preached a sermon in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines, where he kept mispronouncing the phrase translated “God is good” so that it sounded like “God rides a bicycle.”
The communities with whom we worked told and retold these stories about us, and invited us to relate them again and again. We joked of putting these stories together in a book, titled God Rides a Bicycle and other Missionary Misspeaks. My own contribution related to the time I set out into town to buy a garbage can. Now in my defense, the Arabic I learned was what I heard. My formal education was minimal, so most of my language came through listening, repeating, and making absurd mistakes.
So I planned my trip over to Charlie’s shop, thinking about what I heard people say: “Take this piece of paper and put it...in the garbage.” Armed with this knowledge, I entered the shop, proclaiming proudly: “I’d like to buy some garbage.”
“You’d like to buy what?”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
The other trick to language is, if you’re stuck, try and talk your way through it descriptively:
“There’s something plastic that you put garbage in. What do you call it?”
“Bags?” he said, helpfully. I didn’t know the word for bags, so I thought we had arrived at the word for garbage can.
“Yes. I’d like to buy some bags.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have any. Try George’s place across the street.”
So away I went. Several of Charlie’s customers followed, no doubt interested to see what the foreigner would do at George’s place. Along the way, I forgot the word for bags. So I started over, knowing we’d eventually get to the desired destination. “Hi, George. I’d like to buy some garbage.”
“You want to buy garbage? I’m giving it away! Take as much as you want!”
One of the spectators chimed in at this point: “No, no....He’s looking for bags.”
“Ah, bags. You want tall, or short?”
“Tall.” As he turned around and began pulling out the bags, I could see where we were headed, so I stopped him: “No, George. I don’t want bags. I want garbage itself!”
He was stunned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“There’s something plastic, black, round, you put garbage in it.”
“A trash can!”
“A trash can! That’s what I want.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have bags. Try Charlie’s place across the street.”
When you first learn any language, there are certain words and phrases that you are likely to learn at the beginning: hello, how are you, my name is, where is the bathroom...One of the first words I learned in Arabic was maqloube. Maqloube means “upside-down.” The reason I learned it is because it is the name of a particularly delicious Palestinian dish. It somehow seems fitting to talk about traditional food this weekend, doesn’t it? Maqloube is as much drama as it is cuisine. You take a good-sized pot, lining the bottom with tomatoes and onions. You add a layer of chicken, then another layer of vegetables – could be cauliflower, eggplant, potatoes, chickpeas, whatever’s your favorite. Finally, you add a layer of rice, and then enough water and spices to cover the whole thing. And once the rice is cooked through, you let it sit for a good half an hour. Good drama requires effective pauses, after all. Then you put a tray on top of the pot and flip the whole thing...upside-down. There is that moment, of course, when everyone watches to see where exactly the rice will end up.
The next thing to know about learning a language is that you practice any new word you learn as often as possible. “What would you like to eat?” “Maqloube.” Sometimes context isn’t even relevant: “How are you?” “Maqloube.” “What’s your name?” “Maqloube.” But the longer we were there, the more we discovered how useful that word could be. When people are trying to live out their lives and care for their families in the midst of conflict and violence, troubled by the rise of religious and political extremism and suffering under a brutal Occupation, when despair surrounds and hope is far away, perhaps the best way to answer that simple question, “How are you?” is...upside-down. There are times for each of us, I’m sure, where we feel that something is deeply wrong with the world around us. Things seem to have gone astray, off-track. Everything wrong is right; everything right is wrong; what shouldn’t even be has come to pass; everything is topsy-turvy, maqloube, upside-down.
The disciples must surely have felt something like this when faced with our lesson from John’s gospel. They have entered Jerusalem triumphantly, taking part in the Passover preparations, even breaking bread together...“But now, after the Garden last night, our Christ has been handed over and is now on trial before Pilate. What happened? This isn’t what our ancestor David promised us. In his final words before he died, that great king, he promised us that his covenant with God would last forever. He taught us that our Messiah would come and restore his kingdom, his glorious, righteous kingdom, where justice shines like first light breaking, where foreign occupations and Pilate and his kind disappear. Jesus is supposed to be our new king. We should be his courtiers, sitting next to him in this wondrous Jerusalem of glory. And now this...What is happening to our king, the promised one of David? And what about us? What will happen to us?”
And as that long Friday progressed, long past the trial, the disciples’ perceived inversion continued. “A king, our king, should have a throne, royal linens, a golden crown upon his head. Instead, he has been stripped and beaten, his head covered in thorns, and nailed to that horrific cross.” The world that they had expected had come crashing to the ground. Everything wrong is right, everything right is wrong, what shouldn’t even be has come to pass, the world is topsy-turvy, maqloube, upside-down.
Was Christ a king? That’s the name of the feast we celebrate today. Given the way that the disciples expected everything to turn out, assuming the kind of Messiah for which that whole generation was waiting, the evidence seems to point in a different direction, toward the defeat of a ragtag band of pretenders. And yet, Christ, confronted by Pilate in that trial scene, never denies his kingship. “You say that I am king,” he tells Pilate. “But my kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, then my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.”
For some reason, it is this detail of the story that leaps out to me this morning. In fact, his followers were fighting to keep him from being handed over. Didn’t Peter draw his sword in the Garden to defend his king? Didn’t he manage to maim the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear? And what did Christ tell him? “Put your sword back in its sheath.”
Friends, here’s the odd truth at the heart of this lesson, at the heart of it all, at the heart of our celebration around this font and this table today. It is Jesus, not Pilate, who turned the world and its expectations on their head. It is Christ himself, not the Roman authorities, who entered the topsy-turvy nature of this topsy-turvy world in order to set it aright. He was indeed a king, that very Messiah from the line of David. His crown was of thorns, not gold. His royal linens were his bare, battered skin. His throne was that horrific cross. And his death, of all things, his death, granted new life and possibility and hope to a world gone mad.
This is the outrageous thing that we, the Church, proclaim: that the betrayed, rejected, defeated, crucified Jesus is our gracious, merciful, risen, triumphant king. It is his weakness which gives him power, his being broken which offers us the healing we so desire, his defeat which offers ultimate victory. When the world is upside-down, when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict and violence, when despair surrounds and hope is far away, it is then that we discover that Christ is there with us, reminding us that it is he who turns the expectations of the world on their head, that the last will be first, and that the mere crumbs of divine truth will satisfy the deepest spiritual hunger.
What about you? Does this sound like anything you face? Is your world feeling topsy-turvy, flipped on its head, gone astray, off-track? Perhaps you’ve lost a friend. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a heartbreaking conflict with a loved one. Perhaps you’re struggling with some form of addiction or a behavior of which you are painfully ashamed. Or maybe you look at your future, a future that doesn’t look as bright as your past. It could be that you’re feeling the sense of loss – loss of power, ability, clarity, strength, health, stability. Do you find yourself turned upside-down by what life has to offer? Then have I got a meal for you.