Christ the King
Watch the sermon here.
Today we wrap it all up, the church year that is, and the stewardship pledge drive (and the easy, simple time that existed BH – Before the Holidays). And we celebrate it all with Christ the King Sunday, a feast day which, you might like to know, didn’t exist before about 100 years ago. On this day we hear all the scriptures about God as king, and as we do so, we review before our eyes the image of God as Old Man on the Throne with a White Beard, Who is Probably White, and modern preachers must take pains to try to do away with all the bad theology and psychology this has inflicted on faithful Christians and the world at large. At least half of evangelism these days – sharing the good news of Jesus – is first of all deconstructing all the bad news about God that people have internalized and carry with them, whether they know it consciously or not. So for the record: God is not an old man on a throne, nor is God white, nor is God a ‘he,’ nor is God watching from the clouds to see if you are behaving today. And if you’re struggling with any of that, then come talk to your clergy so we can help.
You millennials, or parents of millennials, might remember the TV show ‘Dinosaurs’ from the early 1990s. I do not remember it, because I was in college by then. But I do remember that my brother had to watch it with his young daughter, and he remarked that one of the best things about the show was the baby dinosaur, who called his mom and dad Momma and Not-the-Momma. So today’s feast could really be called the Feast of Christ Not-the-King. Because everything Jesus shows us is exactly the opposite of a worldly king – the opposite of authoritarian, top-down, power-centric behavior. Jesus teaches and models the way of the servant, the lover who lays his life down for his beloved, the compassionate friend, the ally of the poor and marginalized. When Jesus tries to explain what he means to Pilate in that gospel reading we just heard, it is obvious that Pilate doesn’t understand at all where he’s coming from. And so very often, neither do we. Jesus says he’s here to testify to the truth. Sometimes truth isn’t always what we’re ready to hear.
At St Michael’s a few years ago we engaged in a process that led us toward our six Core Values, things that we found to be both true about this church and aspirational – values that define us even if we fail to live up to them. They are Diversity, Joy, Spiritual Growth, Community, Stewardship – all of those tied up in the first one, Following Jesus Christ. These values say that we want St Michael’s to be a place where everyone belongs, where we have fun and delight together, where we grow, where we build deep and lasting relationships, and where we care for those who will come after us, all of it following ‘the way of Jesus in love, humility, and service to others.’ That was what we said about ourselves in earlier times.
And then, Covid came. The pandemic has dealt a hard blow to us as a community, accelerating trends of the past few years. In our parish we have lost beloved elders over the last few years. And we have lost young families too, partly because of moves out of the city and because of the pandemic, but partly because of a lot of things we have yet to learn. We have struggled with how to communicate with one another, not able or ready to be together in person for all the casual interaction we were accustomed to – we’ve always had a hard time getting news out to everyone in the congregation, but it was, frankly, so much worse over the last few years. We have lost some of the momentum we had toward future plans, spinning in anxiety about finances and uncertainties. We’re more siloed and isolated from each other, and tired, and uncertain how to reconnect. We don’t even know for sure who is still part of this community and who has drifted away. It will take us some time before we feel as alive and abundant a congregation as we did just a few years ago. That’s the hard truth.
And yet we have thrived in new and unexpected ways too. Some of you, amazingly, joined the church during the pandemic, or deepened your involvement here. We both love and hate Zoom, but oh my, who knew that a small group could meet and be so vulnerable with one another through the screen? Or that a challenging process like Sacred Ground could allow conversation about race that we had been tiptoeing around for years? We have journeyed towards concrete steps on reparations that will make a difference far beyond the symbolic – the reparations committee made their recommendations to the vestry, and you’ll be hearing more about those in the next months. We have solidified plans to make our facilities more accessible and usable for more people. We are lingering at hospitality and inviting our neighbors into it in a way we never could when we had it inside. And we are feeding so many more people on Saturdays, with some really wonderful food. All at a time when many churches struggled simply to survive. All of that is the truth as well. I think our Core Values remain our values, even weary as we are.
I bring up these values because they represent values that are distinctly not-the-King values. When we sat and prayed and talked together in that process years ago, we weren’t looking for things that would play particularly well on social media. We told stories of how God was at work in this congregation, and where the Spirit was moving through it. The stories didn’t feature our bank accounts, or suggest that we were a slick, glossy church of beautiful people. We didn’t claim that we would always agree and get along and be all of one mind without any dissent, or that we held opinions that were more correct and righteous than other people. We said first of all that we were followers of Jesus Christ, serving others in love and humility. That’s the way of Jesus, and it can be messy, and it’s quite different from the values of the world. I think we do really want to follow that way.
Today is our ingathering, when we lay our gifts on the altar, coming forward to put our money where our mouths are, you could say. We talk about sacrificial giving, each of us giving as much as we can and maybe a little more besides, to make this church one that truly lives out its values. So today we try to do that. (I usually write a letter to tell you what our family is giving – but I was on sabbatical when this pledge drive started. For the record, we plan to raise our pledge to $1200 a month, a bit of an increase from last year.) And we walk our gifts forward because it’s not just about our money and our mouths – it’s also about our bodies. We can’t honestly claim to serve if we ourselves never show up to do the work, to actually help others besides ourselves. We can’t wish for community if we ourselves don’t make time in our schedules to care for each other. We can’t celebrate diversity if we don’t do the hard work of rooting out racism and economic inequality in our own lives. We can’t follow Jesus if what we really mean is following not-the-Jesus – if what we’re really doing is clinging to the king-like values of the world around us. We are the church. People see the church when they look at our lives. What is the truth our lives tell? Which values do we live by?
The way of Jesus, the way of God’s most gracious rule – as our opening prayer said today – sets us free and brings us together. The way of Jesus starts with exposing the truth of what binds us, the patterns and addictions and myths that keep us in thrall…the untruths that we live with. God calls that out, and grieves over all of it. But then God makes a new start, renewing us and calling us forth to be a new people. And we can make a new start – a new year begins next week for us as a church with the coming of Advent, and it is a good time to stop and regroup. This has been a rough time of it over these last years – and yet it has been a time filled with grace and the Holy Spirit as well. We begin again today, to prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ not-the-King, God come as a little child. We recommit again to living as God’s beloved community of healing, growing, loving Christians. May God make us new, and make us whole. Amen.