The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King: November 20, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer
Ok, so Episcopalians are often known for being Anglophiles, worshiping in our lovely churches with old hymns because we secretly wish we were in England. So, ‘fess up – how many of you are watching ‘The Crown’ right now? Ah, yes, the Queen. The show is coming at the right time for an escape – the queen, the model of decency and dignity, leader of her people. So much more inspiring than the news in our current media, the horrifying spectacle that just seems to be getting worse – or the ongoing divisive cocoons of social media, not much more helpful.
I’ve always found it so intriguing that on our paper money is printed the words, ‘In God We Trust.’ Right there across the face of one of our greatest idols, in this mostly secular country, we have the reminder that God, God with a capital G, is the true God in whom we place our trust. Not money or anything it represents by way of security or status or power. Only God.
This presidential campaign season, and the election, are another such reminder. No elected leader, no human system, should be the focus of our trust. They all fail; they can not heal us or bring us life or bring about the beloved community here on earth. Only God can do that.
And today on this feast of Christ the King our scriptures and theology serve as yet a third reminder that Jesus is Lord – not anyone else. Not the false shepherds that Jeremiah rails at, who destroy and scatter the sheep. Not the powers and rulers who crucified Jesus on the cross. Not the one we elected, not the one we didn’t elect. No one but God is God. No power except God’s is true.
It’s an idea that human beings have struggled with for millennia. God’s power is the only true power – but God’s power is expressed in weakness. Jesus is king – but he’s king in a completely different way than we understand. He is not a new Caesar. He is not about earthly conquest and control. He is not absolute power wielded absolutely. Over and over again in the gospels Jesus turns our ideas of power upside down, and rebukes those who try to hold on to that kind of power – through riches, or status, or exploiting or lording it over others.
In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits and a former soldier, wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations for his monks. He includes one meditation called the Two Standards. The meditation offers two images of kings and their strategies: one the false king, Lucifer, who uses the desire for riches, honor, and pride as his strategy to enslave and destroy his followers, and one the true king, Christ, whose strategy is poverty, powerlessness, and humility. In the meditation, we are invited to decide whom we will follow – and therefore to begin changing our life to reflect those values. Of course in the meditation, the right answer is to follow Jesus. The paradox is that in that self-emptying and humility, we possess everything: Christ himself. Rather than being enslaved to the false king and the destructiveness of his path, we are freed and brought out into the truth: the knowledge that our whole reality and value is grounded in being created and redeemed in Christ, not in any status or stature or security of our own or the world’s making. Pretty remarkable from a former military officer.
So this call to worship the true God, not to be distracted and enslaved by idols of power and wealth and dominance, has profound implications for our lives. How do we choose to follow Jesus? What does that look like?
Today we’re welcoming new members to our community, something we do a few times a year. It’s a chance to say hello, hooray, we’re glad you’re with us and committing to stay with us. We are glad and honored to be a home for you, and we are thrilled and honored at the gifts you each bring to us. We all grow richer every time someone new becomes a part of this community.
But just what is it you’re signing on to today? It’s a home and a family and a place to belong, yes; something that many of us feel like we need, living in a place like New York. For some of us, we’re away from the communities we used to belong to. Maybe feeling like we no longer fit in the communities we used to belong to, especially in this post-election time. For many of us, life can be isolating, and a community to be with matters, a community that is centered on shared values and beliefs and a care for one another.
But that language about home and family and belonging might sometimes lull us into a false sense of complacency. One theologian notes that following Jesus was notably different from following other rabbis of his time. The usual pattern was that a rabbi would begin to become known for his teaching, and people would come to him, and ask to stay with him and learn from him in the place where he was. The different rabbinical schools of tradition formed in this way, in different locations based around different teachers. But Jesus the rabbi functioned differently. Instead of people coming to be with him and stay, Jesus came upon them in the midst of their ordinary lives and called them to follow him. Instead of gathering a community of disciples around him in one spot, to stay and belong and be at home together, Jesus dragged his disciples hither and yon all over the countryside. Being Jesus’ follower was literal – following a moving target as he roamed around, preaching and bringing about the kingdom of God. The early Christians were known as people of the Way. They didn’t sit still. They, and Jesus, were on the move.
And likewise, being a part of this community shouldn’t just be about coming in and hunkering down. Being part of this community should be about joining us on a journey, one where we’re on the move. Not just busy with activity – but following, following where Jesus is going. What Michael Curry calls the Jesus Movement.
Now, maybe you’ve got a mental image of this whole church congregation here today getting up and stampeding out the door, marching down Amsterdam and off to fight for a cause. That might just happen if God calls us to do it. But I’m thinking more of the movement that will happen at the end of this service, when we say the dismissal together – Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! Thanks be to God! – and we each of us go off into the rest of the city. That’s the way the journey goes most of the time, each of us to love and serve the Lord in our different walks of life, in different workplaces and schools and groups of friends and neighbors. Each of us following Jesus in a unique way, unique to us.
We come together as a community here on days like this, on Sundays to worship, on other days to read scripture together or to talk with one another or eat together. We rest and refuel, we recharge, reorient ourselves again toward God in our midst. And then we go out, newly fed, to be Jesus’ followers in the rest of our lives. It matters that when we come together we treat each other well here, that people here find real community and care. But it matters perhaps even more to ask how you are living the rest of your life. Is what we do here today bearing fruit in how you treat others in your office tomorrow? Is what we do here strengthening you to stand against the forces of evil and injustice at work in the world around us right now? Is what we do here fueling you up for the long, long race that continues on right outside those doors?
Because following this Jesus, as I said earlier, is a call to move often against the tide of the world around us. Not to kowtow to power and wealth in this world. Not to be afraid of that power. Because our true allegiance as the Jesus Movement is to one who walked straight into death and through it brought life for all. When we come to worship God together, when we make community here, we are strengthening ourselves, emboldening ourselves for the journey that every one of us is on. We need this now; we see more clearly than ever that the powers of the world are not arrayed for good. May we all be freed and brought together under Jesus’ most gracious rule; may we trust in God and God alone. Amen.