November 26, 2017
Christ the King
Last Sunday After Pentecost Year A
I have a very clear memory of being a young child, watching TV with my parents, footage from some award show or event with a red carpet, and seeing Princess Diana, in a black dress and a tiara.
“Who is that?” I asked, totally enamored by her beauty and poise. My mom said, that’s the Princess of Wales; she is going to be Queen of England.
I couldn’t believe it. Princesses are real?!?! “Oh, yes, of course they’re real,” my parents told me.
I only knew about princesses and princes and queens and kings from Disney movies and fairy tales. I had no idea that this kind of societal structure existed in real life!
Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about kings and queens and emperors of all kinds, monarchy and hierarchy and how government has evolved, which is all tied up at certain points in history with the founding of our own church, of course.
I’ve been studying for exams that I’ll take in January called the General Ordination Exams, six essay questions on all the areas of study I need to be proficient in to be ordained a priest next year. So I’ve been studying up on Anglican Church History and a friend recently asked me,”how do you get over the fact that your church was basically formed just because King Henry VIII wanted to get divorced?”
You’ve probably heard that very condensed version of history yourself--in some ways, we are all sitting here in All Saints’ church this morning instead of down the street at St. Thomas Aquinas because a human king in the 1500s in England wanted to divorce his wife in a rather brutal way, with very self-involved and power-hungry motivations.
It’s not quite that simple, of course--nothing ever is--and our church also descends from an array of reforms that were happening across Europe, often necessary and innovative and progressive reforms, and the Episcopal Church has its own post-American Revolution identity which is distinctly separate from the kings and queens of England.
But the fact remains that kings and queens were real and are real. And when Jesus talks about sitting on a throne of glory, he is invoking an image that was very real and powerful to the people he was talking to. No one listening to Jesus would have had my childhood response: “Is this real?” Everyone knew very well the power that a king could wield and how exciting and NEW it was for them to think that the king could actually be JESUS--that God could be king--rather than the earthly and flawed rulers they were familiar with.
Jesus speaks very directly to the people in this speech from the Gospel of Matthew this morning. It’s not exactly a parable--it feels to me almost closer to an image from a book like Revelation--a lot of animal imagery mixed with end times motifs--the image often in my mind reading biblical stories like this is a lot of sheep and goats floating on puffy clouds and some of them getting zapped by lightning.
Jesus says that the Son of Man will sit on a throne and act like a shepherd who separates sheep from goats; God will put those who are righteous on one side from those who are unworthy on the other. But neither side will know why!
And this God-ruler on the throne will tell them what they are not expecting: You are righteous because you treated me well.
“When did we do that?” The sheep want to know!
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘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.’
This is the truly radical point, if you walk away from church this morning thinking about one thing, let it be this:
At the very same moment that God is a ruler on a throne, God is also the very least of society. The very least of us. God is on the street corner, God is in the prison, God is hungry, God is where you least expect God to be, where you do not even know to look.
This is Jesus’s radical reinterpretation of monarchy and royalty and how society works, and it blows people’s minds. God is all-powerful, God is on the throne, and also: God is hungry. God is thirsty. God is a stranger. God is naked and cold. God is sick. God is in prison.
This is a topsy-turvy understanding of king-ship. It busts through class and gender and race and any prejudiced expectation you could have about who has power.
In a time when we don’t have the same understanding of kingship as they did either at the time of Jesus or around the formation of the Anglican Church, what does this mean for us? In other words, what does this mean for you in 2017? Where do you not even know that God is? And are you honoring God there or are you missing the point?
To tie it all together this morning: I have been thinking about two different plays this weekend after Thanksgiving. Julius Caesar and the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. Please bear with me as I link them together, possibly for the first time:
First, Kinky Boots. My parents came to town for Thanksgiving and wanted to see a Broadway show, so we saw it on Friday. Maybe you’ve seen it or the movie it’s based on, but it tells the story of a shoe factory in a small town in England that is going to be forced to close because no one is buying their old and ugly, but well-made, shoes. The son who inherits the struggling factory from his father has an idea--if he corners the market on making the absolute best shoes for drag queens, maybe the factory could survive. No one else is making good quality shoes for drag queens. Of course, as with any tidy Broadway musical, there are scrapes and hurdles and it’s not easy to get everyone on board with this new mission. But eventually, the people of the town, and the son himself, learn what it means to love and to accept each other. The final message, sung by a company of people in high-heeled red boots: “You change the world when you change your mind.”
What a powerful image, especially for us today in a society we keep hearing is impossibly split down the middle. Have you ever changed your mind about something? You know it is an exercise in humility. It feels scary and sometimes embarrassing; it is a humbling experience. What if we could believe in a person’s potential for change? And what if we opened ourselves to this humbling possibility of change? You change the world when you change your mind.
But back to kings: In the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, a drama about the time just before Jesus, and written in the midst of England’s religious reformation (so a little older than Kinky Boots), Caesar is gaining more and more power, before his inevitable tragic fall. The more powerful he gets, the farther removed he becomes from reality, until he goes as far as to compare himself to the North Star, the immoveable light in the galaxy. “I could be well moved, if I were as you. If I could pray to move, prayers would move me. But I am constant as the Northern Star.”
The more we cling to power, the more our leaders claim to be immoveable, the closer we come to inevitable destruction, to unknowingly, unwittingly, surprisingly finding ourselves amongst the goats. The ones who neglected the neediest and in so doing missed finding God.
This is not the kind of kingship Jesus promises. Jesus does not support this!
Because our citizenship in the world does not rely on human boundaries, but rather on our place in the reign of God, the ruler on the throne who is both peasant and King, prisoner and Queen. Imagine if our leaders could see that the only real power comes from releasing it, from going to the margins, from serving the neediest and most vulnerable people, where God always is.
As we move into a season of preparation for God coming in to the world as a tiny child, I invite you into the beauty and paradox of God’s reign on earth, a king and an infant! It is an invitation to see beauty in change and flexibility, in youth and vulnerability, and to see God outside of our concept of hierarchy and patriarchy and all the -archys. Our primary citizenship as Christians means this God is our ruler and not any human and, frankly, what a relief!
Our king, our queen, our princess, our president, the ultimate power we celebrate today on Christ the King Sunday is the very neediest person in your midst. Go help that person, go feed that person, go clothe that person, go visit that person, and there you will be with God. AMEN.