Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Anarchy in the Kingdom

It doesn’t take a controversial and divisive presidential election 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 simply don’t care about those on the bottom.  And setting aside current partisan politics in America, we 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.

In the midst of exile, the people living among violent kings and warring countries, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, who then communicated this striking vision to any who would have ears to hear: “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness.” 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 the hope and promise of God is not retribution, but restoration.  A God who will raise up a righteous ruler who will cast away any shadow of fear.  A God who will raise up a righteous Branch full of wisdom and justice.  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 theologian 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.  And though it isn’t Good Friday, the narrative that comes to us from the Gospel of Luke illustrates how profoundly different Christ the King is from all other example of power-maddened rulers we have seen throughout history: When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." This kingdom and ruler prophesied in Jeremiah 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.” Hanging naked and vulnerable from a Roman tree, this is the man whom we acclaim as our King.

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 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.  So too with us. 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, Pope Pious XI 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 Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on November 20, 2016.  The texts were Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, and Luke 23:33-43.

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