Monday, November 24, 2014

Anarchy in the Kingdom

It doesn’t take a controversial Executive Order from the President of the United States to recognize the prevailing sentiment across the land that wielding power and authority brings corruption, misconduct, or exploitation.  Gone are the days when an entire people can rally around a single elected official.  Both sides of the Republican/Democratic divide, those in-between, and those on the margins seem to be growing ever more quick to decry the actions done by the powerful and to distrust them all the same.  Whether we like it or not, we are living with a heightened sense of the corruption power brings, and the sense that those in power withhold information, shielding the truth from the masses, wielding their power inappropriately.  And setting aside current partisan politics in America, we certainly can look back throughout history and find example after example of those in power who have wielded that power with violent hands, twisted aspirations, and cold, dead hearts.  From president to prime minister, emperor to king, we have seen unchecked power wreak havoc upon the world.  So, if you’ve found yourself perplexed at the name of today’s feast, The Feast of Christ the King, you’re probably not alone.

Perhaps the title ‘Christ the King’ perplexes or bothers you for another reason.  Women and men alike have good reason to be frustrated by the way men have enjoyed, and still do, a privileged status in this nation and around the world.  Men have long possessed the bulk of power around the world. Again, from president to prime minister, emperor to king, we have far too few examples of women in power and leadership around the world, and I can understand the hesitancy to celebrate the power of Jesus Christ by attributing to him a title reserved solely for powerful men.  That being said, I think there is something profoundly and beautifully unsettling in calling Christ a King and following him as our Lord, because, as these Scriptures have so wonderfully illustrated for us today, the way God in Christ wields power is unlike anything we are used to, and has the potential to radically re-shape our understanding of the right use of power and authority.

After a failed and corrupt line of kings has so poorly led the people of Israel, God speaks to the prophet Ezekiel, who then communicates this striking vision to any who would have ears to hear: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among the scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.  I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…I will feed them with good pasture…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”  Contrary to what history has shown us about kings and emperors, we are granted a vision of a God who, with all of the power to destroy and rebuild, the power to cast away the forsaken and start anew, the power to lay waste to entire peoples…we see that, though God has this power, God promises not retribution, but restoration.  A God who will become so intimate with a strayed and scattered people.  A God who will lie down in the midst of chaos, and move into the neighborhood as it were.  We see a God who seeks to build a kingdom for the common good, for the healing of the injured.  A God not self-indulgent, but, as Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, fully and attentively concerned with the vulnerable in the flock.

And as Christians, we most fully encounter this God who refuses self-indulgence in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.  A wonderful story comes to us from the Gospel of Luke, as Jesus unveils his mission after spending 40 days in a desert.  He quotes from the prophet Isaiah, but the themes from the prophet Ezekiel permeate his words:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  From the beginning of his public ministry, we see Jesus embodying a concern for the poor, the oppressed…embodying the truth that God has come to humanity not as a king tightly holding on to power and authority, but as a king ready and willing to forsake power as the world sees it in order to bring healing, health, wholeness and salvation.  To break open humanity’s prisons in all of their varieties, “to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” as Ezekiel said.  This kingdom prophesied in Ezekiel comes to fruition and fullness in Jesus, who inaugurates it not through violence or force, but through self-emptying, self-giving, self-sacrifice: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

It’s precisely the life of Jesus and his legacy that makes me want to hold onto the title ‘Christ the King’, because it stands as an affront to any nation, or leader, or even any individual going about daily life who thinks that power is properly used to control, to gain, to conquer.  Lifting up as a king one who has so turned the notions of power and control on their head witnesses to the radically different way life in this kingdom goes on.  It’s unsettling, though, because we who are citizens of this kingdom are called to the same life of service, self-giving, and sacrifice: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me...Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  To follow this king means we live lives overflowing with humility and service for service sake, not for the sake of any possible gains.  Unaware of the ‘benefit’ of eternal life, those in the parable simply cared for the vulnerable in their midst.  Likewise, we ‘reign’ with Jesus by serving the world, healing it through acts of kindness and generosity that may very well go unnoticed.

Ultimately, the hope for this feast, this celebration of the quite-unorthodox King Jesus, is to witness to the world that power need not corrupt and control.  It can be used to transform the world for the good of all.  In his letter to Catholic bishops worldwide on the occasion of creating this feast day in 1925, asked this question, and within his question lies the beauty of this feast:  “If the kingdom of Christ, then, receives, as it should, all nations under its way, there seems no reason why we should despair of seeing that peace which the King of Peace came to bring on earth - he who came to reconcile all things, who came not to be ministered unto but to minister, who, though Lord of all, gave himself to us as a model of humility, and with his principal law united the precept of charity; who said also: "My yoke is sweet and my burden light." Oh, what happiness would be ours if all [people], individuals, families, and nations, would but let themselves be governed by Christ! "Then at length," to use the words addressed by our predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, twenty-five years ago to the bishops of the Universal Church, "then at length will many evils be cured; then will the law regain its former authority; peace with all its blessings be restored. [People] will sheathe their swords and lay down their arms when all freely acknowledge and obey the authority of Christ, and every tongue confesses that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.”

*A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on November 23rd, 2014.  The texts were Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Ephesians 1:15-23, and Matthew 25:31-46.

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