Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16 (The Song of Zechariah); Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
As you may know, there was troubling incident at Monument Valley Middle School last month. As reported in the Berkshire Eagle, “a student repeatedly had been telling Jewish students that he was going to ‘nuke the Jews,’ and that ‘I have a list and you’re on it, and all the other Jewish kids are on it too.’”[i]
The school took immediate action, ensuring the safety of students and disciplining the perpetrator. But Principal Ben Doren and School Superintendent Peter Dillon knew that more action was needed. This past Wednesday they convened a group of community leaders, including faith leaders, to talk about how we might address all forms of hate, not only in our schools, but throughout our community. As Peter was quoted in the Eagle, “When anyone is being treated with hate and hate speech, it compromises all of us and the whole community.”[ii]
We talked about how we as a community should respond. The general feeling was that the ways we have been responding are clearly inadequate; the old ways aren’t working. This is a different time, and we need to find new ways to combat hate. We also had a good beginning conversation about the roots of hatred, the reasons for a recent uptick in incidents. It was agreed that we are in a divided time, a harsher time than in years past. It seems we cannot look to our political leaders—certainly not our national leaders—for a way forward to kindness, or to unity. We need to look elsewhere.
Of course, this is not the first time anyone has been in this predicament. Over and over again through history, there have been moments when humanity has failed—when we have been reminded that human leaders are just that: Human, and fallible. Pope Pius XI, the head of the Catholic Church from 1922 to 1939, found himself trying to make sense of the world in the aftermath of World War I – the war to end all wars. In his first years, he spoke out against capitalism, socialism and communism, and then in 1925 he published an encyclical, or letter to the church, saying, “…manifold evils in the world were due to the fact that the majority of men had thrust Jesus Christ and his holy law out of their lives; that these had no place either in private affairs or in politics: and we said further, that as long as individuals and states refused to submit to the rule of our Savior, there would be no really hopeful prospect of a lasting peace among nations.”[iii] Pope Pius’ idea was that we were foolishly putting our trust in earthly leaders, instead of in God. With this letter, he established the Feast of Christ the King, which we celebrate today.
This feast has been embraced far beyond the Roman Catholic Church because we recognize the disappointment we feel over and over again that our political leaders are not committed to Jesus’ way of love. We know that we need something more than what we have. So this feast certainly makes sense for us.
And yet, what is presented to us in this morning’s gospel is not what we might expect for a day meant to celebrate our king. This is not a story that would immediately bring to our mind the splendor we associate with royalty. This story is bleak and painful.
One commentator said this:
“Jesus, the supposed Son of God, Lord of Lords and King of Kings, executed like a common criminal with a couple of petty criminals. Not very kingly, is it? And then, more indignity, more shame; the soldiers kneel at his feet while he’s still alive. Not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes. And people laughed at him, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen One.’ There it is, the crux of the matter for the people then, and if we’re honest for us now.
“We don’t want a suffering and dying God. We want a strong and powerful one. We want a Savior who can not only forgive our sins, but who will make us richer and prettier and more popular and help ensure that all our plans work out for the best.”[iv]
As we try to unravel just what all this means, we must again remember that we were not the first intended audience for this gospel. Those for whom the gospels were originally written, of course, had a much different view of how the world works.
The kingdom that Christ promised was in direct opposition to the powers of the world as they knew them. While our view of kings may be as harmless figureheads in fancy clothes, the people of the first century would have viewed kings as tyrannical, cruel, and of course, all powerful. Kings were to be feared, and therefore obeyed.
But Christ offered a different view of kingship. He didn’t so much challenge the prevailing notion of order, as smash it. He offered a new way of ruling, not based on fear and domination, but instead focused on love, mercy, and grace. For those who first heard this gospel nearly two thousand years ago, hope for something better—for a better leader, for a more just world—was embodied in Christ and the kingdom he offered.
And one of the most remarkable things about this kingdom was that it came in ways so unexpected. Instead of the fanfare and pomp of the royal, it came humbly and quietly in a manger. Instead of military might in the brute force of a warrior, it came in a simple carpenter who embodied love for one another and true compassion. Instead of the triumphalism and show of a decisive battle, it found its culmination in the suffering and self-effacement of death on a cross.
You see, what is ushered in through this moment on Calvary is not just a new ruler, but an entirely new realm. Through humbling himself in torture and death, Christ takes away the power of despotic rulers and the instruments of terror.
So today we celebrate that kind of kingdom—and that kind of leadership. As I work through this thought experiment of Christ as my king, first I have to wrestle again with the concept of the Kingdom of God. Of course, Jesus, through the gospel writers, takes on this question. In the last few months we have read of the ways that Luke’s gospel tries to explain what this upside-down kingdom is.
We learned that the kingdom is like a son who foolishly asks for his inheritance early, only to squander it and come home destitute. His father meets him not with judgment, but instead with celebrations and love.
We learned that the kingdom is like a shepherd who cares so deeply for his sheep that, when one is lost, he forsakes everything else and searches until the lost sheep is found.
We learned that the kingdom is like a rich man who gives a party, and when other rich folks are too busy to come, he instead invites the poor, the blind, and the lame to enjoy the feast.[v]
All of these stories work to illustrate the outrageous love that God has for us—the unexpected and undeserved grace that we are offered through Jesus.
OK, fair enough. If we’ve been paying attention, we get the gist of this kingdom. But then we must ask, “What does it mean to understand Christ as my King?” It is not enough just to see and believe in God’s kingdom; we are called to be Christ’s subjects. It is only then that God’s reign truly becomes visible here on earth. And I would like to suggest that becoming Christ’s is not really a matter of allegiance, or faith; it is also, and perhaps most importantly, about living a life after his example, where the way of love is always our go-to.
Our rulers—whether we are talking about politicians who lead our government, or bishops and clergy who run our churches, or celebrities and influencers who dominate our culture—ultimately, all of them will disappoint. And while they may do some good things and even sometimes affect positive change, they will fail because they, like us, are human.
Instead we are called to follow a leader who thinks not of himself but of us. One who would go to any lengths necessary, even torture and death, for our sake. One who embodies love so completely and selflessly that we know unequivocally he is worthy of our loyalty.
This morning, as we come to the end of the church year, we are reminded again of the culmination, the denouement of our faith story. With this story, and this promise of a king that we can fully trust, we slingshot around the corner back to the advent of Christ, where we will begin anew next week. And we are reminded that is our job, and our joy, to be faithful subjects of this radical, upside-down king. It is our task to embrace the way of love that he himself embodies, knowing we can trust him to rule our hearts.
How do we do that? Thinking again of the recent incident of hate at our Middle School, I turn to my colleague The Rev. Erik Karas and a letter to the editor that he has submitted to the Berkshire Eagle. Erik said:
A recent anti-Semitic incident in a local middle school prompted a meeting with school, community, and faith leaders. I was impressed with how seriously and professionally the school has taken this particular incident, but perhaps even more impressed by how much proactive work they have been doing to address fear and hate for years.
It was clear to me that it is you and I who can do more. We know our children pick up spoken and unspoken lessons in every waking moment. The anti-Semitism, racism, anti-immigrant bias and hate they bring to school is learned from us, the people in their families, communities, and neighborhoods. It is time for us to begin a journey to become the community our children need so they can learn that hatred is never a successful way to deal with fear.
While it is far from the only way to talk about this journey, my way is through the steps of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. I confess that as a white, straight, Christian, male, I continually fail to fully see and appreciate the privilege I carry with me. I have failed to address the fear around me which too often leads to hate and violence and I fail to use my privilege to stand up to hate.
While I believe God forgives us even before we ask, I also know that to live into the peace of God’s forgiveness, I need to walk into a new way of living that will work to repair past hurts and minimize new ones. Therefore I recommit to working with my neighbors who do not share my privilege. I commit to doing so in public, for everyone to see. I commit to preach about it, write about it, and do more than just shake my head when I hear bias and hatred in our community and I commit to all of this as a first step, and not the journey’s end.
Now I invite you, my neighbors, to join this journey in whatever form that might take for you. To walk toward a future where we do our part as a community to teach our children that anti-Semitism, racism, anti-immigrant bias and hatred of any kind does not free us of fear but only passes it on. To teach this together so our children know this before they even get to school.
This work, and the rest of the work of loving God and ALL of God’s creation, is what it means to be subjects of Christ the King. We are being called to witness to the power of love as embodied in our King, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, in order to help create his Kingdom here on earth. To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers in order to keep that Kingdom alive and thriving. To be living embodiments of God’s love for the world in order that that Kingdom will come here on earth as we know it is in heaven.
As we conclude the church year, let us recommit ourselves to Christ’s story, to the power of love, to the hope of Christ’s kingdom, and to action in His name.
Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.[vi]
[i] “Reports of anti-Semitic incidents at Monument Middle School rattle Jewish students, families,” The Berkshire Eagle, November 13, 2019. https://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/reports-of-anti-semitic-incidents-at-monument-middle-school-rattle-jewish-students-families,590125, accessed 11/20/19.
[iv] Chilton, Delmer L. http://lectionarylab.com/2013/11/16/year-c-the-reign-of-christ/, accessed 11/22/2019.
[v] Westfield, Nancy Lynne. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 334.
[vi] Proper Preface for The Feast of Christ the King, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 236.