This is the last Sunday of the church’s year, with Advent, Christmas, and a whole new year just around the corner. So I thought we might pause for a quick review of how things are going in our country these days. If I had to choose one word for this particular moment, I might try “rattled.” Americans seem to be anxious and worried about just about everything. Everywhere we turn things are not going well and could get worse.
The economy is picking up, but unemployment is rising and people are worried about their jobs and their savings. The debt has been growing rapidly. Meanwhile we watch the partisan hostility in Congress as the efforts continue to reshape our health care system. Who knows where that will end up? The earth’s climate is overheating dangerously, but making major changes seems politically almost impossible. Meanwhile the quest for renewable energy is urgent, but struggling in the face of powerful lobbies. American education is lagging further behind other nations. Oh, and there is a war going on, and no one quite knows what to do about it. It all can seem insoluble.
And you can tell people are worried, and that worry has been turning into anger. Too much is going on, too much is unresolved. There have been the tea party demonstrations, the August fury over claims about death panels, and increasing bitterness coming from people who feel as if things are just out of control.
We are seeing all the foibles of democracy. Voters aren’t necessarily well-informed, thoughtful, or rational. They often vote their emotions and fears. Money, blogs, and talk radio have major effects on political decisions. Commentators are wondering if maybe the point has come where the American democratic system just can’t handle the complexity and the need to make sacrifices for the future that this moment calls for.
Rattled—I think that has it about right. People are wondering, Who’s in charge here? I think it may be time for us to consider an alternative to this messy democratic process—maybe something like monarchy. Preacher Will Willimon first suggested this to me, and I think he’s on to something. After all, constitutional monarchies seem to be doing pretty well—a king or queen, maybe. And what’s wrong with a little aristocracy—it produced a Washington, a Jefferson, and two Roosevelts.
Well, actually, maybe that’s not such a great idea, but I have another, better one. What if we decided to follow the one king who might ultimately lead us out of this mess? That’s what this day is about. Christ the King Sunday we call it. On the last Sunday of the church year we listen to some of the great texts from Scripture that declare that we have a monarch, a ruler, a leader to follow.
Our first lesson from the book of Revelation describes Jesus sitting on a great throne in heaven as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul says that God raised Jesus from the dead “and seated him at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”
Have you ever taken a good look at the image of Christ that is the focal point of this Cathedral? Most of you probably can’t see it clearly since you’re sitting out there in the next county, but if you gaze through the choir up above the high altar, you see what we call the reredos, the huge screen containing statues of dozens of saints. There in the middle is a massive figure of Christ seated on a throne, holding a globe topped with a cross, symbolizing his rule over the entire world, and his other hand raised in blessing. Christ in Majesty it is called. It is an image of Christ the King seated on his heavenly throne.
This is bold, provocative imagery, declaring that we are, in fact, part of the reign of a divine monarch, that Christ is the ruler, the key, the Alpha and the Omega, the truth and the purpose of everything that is. So many of our hymns use these images—from the beautiful “King of glory, King of peace” we just sang, to the hymn “Crown him with many crowns” that we’ll sing at the end of our service. “Crown him ye kings with many crowns, for he is king of all.”
But wait a minute, some of you must be thinking. Isn’t this all a little much? Sure, when we’re in a grand place like this, with the music and the lessons and the beauty, maybe we can get caught up in the notion that Jesus is King and monarch of the universe. But drive downtown to Capitol Hill, K Street, and see how many people are calling Christ King or drive north on Wisconsin Avenue or out on the beltway to see some of the city’s most elegant stores and grandest office complexes. I suspect there is a fair amount of worshiping going on, only not of Christ the King. Or drive east into the poor neighborhoods of Washington where AIDS is rampant, many schools are dilapidated, children aren’t safe, and drug dealers thrive. Christ doesn’t seem to be ruling there.
Or just read the newspapers about Fort Hood or the Sudan or listen to the struggles of your friend trying to find a job, and you will likely end up saying to yourself, Christ is King of what, exactly? Who really is in charge here?
This must be a different kind of king. In today’s Gospel Jesus has been dragged into the gritty headquarters of raw power to face Pontius Pilate, the man in charge of the Roman occupation. Jesus will, in a few hours, be hung on a cross. It’s supposed to be a scene in which a bedraggled, powerless, Jewish teacher with the bloody marks of the whip still on his back, stands quivering before the embodiment of Imperial Rome.
But almost immediately you realize that things aren’t going the way you would expect. Pilate is nervous as a cat, pacing from one room to the next. He is edgy, uncertain, afraid of the crowd outside.
“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks—a sarcastic, ridiculing question.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus answers. He doesn’t mean that somewhere else, like heaven, he is really a king. He means that now, here, there is a dimension of this life where his love rules. He is not interested in being a political leader or revolutionary. “I have come to bear witness to the truth,” he says—the truth of God’s love and righteousness that no king can overturn.
It’s a riveting moment as Pilate and Jesus stand face to face. Pilate, who has behind him the power of the Roman Empire, shows himself to be weak and indecisive. Jesus is calm, clear-eyed, assured. Who is judging whom?
“Are you the king?” Pilate wants to know. Who’s in charge here?
We are looking at a new kind of kingship. This particular king rules by the authority of truth, and being rooted and grounded in God. Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus promises, “If you make my word your home you will indeed be my disciples, you will learn the truth and the truth will make you free.” There is no coercion in how Jesus leads, no power moves, no armies, no guns or bombs. There is simply the awareness of being held absolutely in the gaze of God, receiving moment by moment the love and strength he needs, and living and acting from that.
It looks as if real kingship is not about how much power someone has, but whether someone is rooted in God’s life and truth, which is the essential structure of the universe itself.
Think of that tiny man Mahatma Gandhi, the liberator of India, whose total possessions could be wrapped in the garment he wore every day. Through hunger strikes and non-violence rooted in the truth he called satyagraha, this man brought down the British Empire.
Or of Nelson Mandela, 27 years in prison in faithfulness to the kingdom of justice he believed in. But in his later years President F. W. deKlerk and other South African leaders began slipping out to the Robben Island prison under cover of night to meet with him. It turned out that Mandela had the real power, which came simply from the truth in which he stood.
In the midst of all the problems and worries around us, it’s good to know that there is someone in charge. The truth is that neither the Congress nor the democratic process as a whole can take away the worry and fear we carry and the animosity and divisions around us. But there is one who can. One who went through his own trial and through death and out the other side to show that there is nothing we can do that can make us fall out of the arms of this endlessly loving king. This king works by persuasion, by truth-telling, by tough, clear love. Things take time under his reign because he will not force solutions. But when his followers stay close to him and work for the world he seeks, they are able to hang in for the long haul.
You know, those pilgrims who gathered around for that first Thanksgiving actually trusted Christ as their King. As they began their journey they had no illusions about the difficulty they faced. They knew that at Jamestown in Virginia, the year before they set sail for America, 70 of 109 settlers had died during the first winter, and by the time the pilgrims sailed, 3,000 of the 3,600 had died. Those pilgrims believed they were different, though. “We verily believe and trust the Lord is with us and will graciously prosper our endeavor,” they wrote. They endured fierce storms as they made their way across the Atlantic and settled into their new land.
Half of the group that had made the journey had died after one year, and all but three families had dug graves to bury a husband, wife, or child. Starvation was a real possibility. But nevertheless to celebrate surviving that first year they reached back to reclaim the harvest festivals of ancient Israel. And so the community gathered in the new land for the first Thanksgiving. They welcomed their Native American friend Massasoit with a hundred Pokanoket people who brought five freshly killed deer. And they offered prayers and hymns of thanks to God.
These pilgrims had trusted their lives to God’s providence, to the reign of Christ the King, and then amid the strains of survival they gave thanks for God’s bounty. Faith, perseverance, and gratitude sustained them. Thanksgiving became the great annual festival of gratitude for the abundance God showers on us.
This Christ the King Sunday proclaims that the one who stayed rooted in the truth of God when he stood before Pilate, and who lived God’s truth even to death, is still here and now, as the principle, the guide, the living presence for us in our world. And to proclaim him as King is to commit ourselves to be part of the breaking in of his kingdom of love and justice everywhere.
The problems that are rattling us at the moment are complex and won’t find quick or easy solutions. (Welcome to democracy.) And that calls for the patience, the truth-speaking, the willingness to sacrifice that come from our King. But underneath those problems is something deeper—the fears and wounds, the hurts and disappointments that come our way. To make our way through those, it really helps to know that the one who holds the whole cosmos in being is on our side and ruling for us.
People are hurting these days. New statistics were out this week that there are 4.3 million more children going hungry in the U.S. than a year ago. I hope you’ll ask your King what he wants you to do about that. I hope in this time when every social service agency is often working with double the burden and half the funding, and every church is struggling to make ends meet, that you’ll put your resources on the line as those first pilgrims did. I hope you’ll follow this King where he leads.
The story goes that once a prominent Washingtonian died, a man who had lived a good life: solid, moral, doing his job, being kind to his family. He had been a faithful government worker all his years. When he died he went up to heaven and knocked on the great gate. Out came St. Peter to greet him.
When he said he would like to come in, Peter pulled out a sheet of paper to check him out. It was his résumé with all his awards and accomplishments. Peter looked at it nodding, clearly impressed by what he saw, but eventually a frown settled over his face. “But,” Peter said, “I’m puzzled about one thing. Where are your wounds?”
“What do you mean?” the distinguished man asked.
“Look,” Peter said, “back down at earth. Did you see your city and nation, even your world, struggling through countless crises? Couldn’t you recognize the pain right in front of you as you moved around the city—people without homes and jobs, without health care, without hope? Couldn’t you see the people around the globe in desperate straits? Could you not be wounded, even a little, for the sake of all the wounds around you?”
Crown him, this humiliated man of truth and love, crown him as King of your heart. Crown him as King of your family, your politics, your work, your financial resources, and your play. There is someone in charge.
Of his Kingdom there will be no end. And he shall reign forever.
[This sermon is indebted to William Willimon’s sermon, “Hail, the King!” of November 1988.]