PROPER 29 C, Christ the King
Today is the last Sunday of the church year, traditionally called Christ the King Sunday. I have to confess that for some years I’ve had a bad attitude about this Sunday and have managed to preach on it only once before, and that without mentioning that it’s called Christ the King.
It was teaching or attempting to teach Sunday School on this day that caused me to vow I’d never teach Sunday School again and to rant about the woeful state of our Sunday School materials. First we had to teach the children what a king is. Then we made crowns and swords, which quickly devolved into endless sword fights, without time to ever reference the point of the lesson. ARGGGGG
So I’ll ask you, what do you think of when you hear Christ the King? What are kings like? What do they do? How do they act? Clearly kings are leaders. They are the head honchos of their countries. As an Episcopalian, the first king I think of is Henry the VIII, that paragon of family values, who beheaded two of his wives and divorced two others, but also created our Anglican church by breaking with Rome.
The point is that the kings we know of from history, even the good ones, are generally not so good. They mostly rule by force; in other words, they are warrior kings. They are seldom paragons of virtue in their personal lives either. Since most kings have to rely on their ministers or their nobles to run the kingdom, justice is seldom available to the lower levels of society. The empire of Rome, ruled by the Emperor is just larger and therefore more suspect than a smaller Kingdom.
The point of course, is that Christ the King is a different kind of king. The Jeremiah reading makes this clear. When Jeremiah talks about the bad shepherds scattering the flock he is talking about the kings of Judah and Israel, who have not taken care of the people. The people of Israel have already been scattered and ones of Judah will soon go to exile in Babylon. Their kings had become more interested in their own wealth and power than in the welfare of their people.
“ ‘Woe to the kings who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ says the Lord. . . ‘I will raise up kings over them who will shepherd them and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,’ says the Lord.” Jeremiah goes on to promise that this new king will deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land.
This is the Biblical definition of a good leader, of a good King. Paired with this reading is the Lukan story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus is so clearly portrayed here as NOT a warrior king, but rather a martyr king. And the martyr king, who goes to his death for the sake of his people, although not often found in our history books, does have some very ancient precedents, ones that would have been known in Jesus’s time.
There are two strands of this that I’m aware of. The first is from the time of Goddess worship, prevalent in the early Mediterranean world. In that culture, the high priestess and the Queen were often the same person. Every year a new king was chosen, a high honor. After he mated with the queen he was killed as a sacrifice to the gods of fertility to ensure good crops in the coming year.
The second strand came with the incursion of the Indo-Europeans who moved into the Mediterranean world bringing a male God who ruled from the mountain tops. With them they brought the ideal of a male king who ruled his people, but who, in bad times of crop failure or other severe threat, would sacrifice himself to appease the gods and save the people. In very ancient times the kings of Athens had been known to fling themselves off the Acropolis to save their people in this way.
This is the sort of king we have in Christ. Moreover, this king is non-violent, NOT a warrior. I would guess that explains why so many people could not accept Jesus as the Messiah, because they were expecting a warrior king more like David. He did not set his people free from the Romans in the manner that they anticipated.
The Kingdom that Jesus preached throughout his ministry was a potential and present kingdom in this world, but unlike any before or since. It is not created through violence. It is not maintained through coercion. Everyone in this Kingdom is of equal value and everyone has enough. Therefore justice for all is a reality and there is no reason to be afraid.
Jesus did not fight the Romans in the way most people expected the Messiah to fight. He opposed the Romans and the Jewish leaders who cooperated with them, using very little but his words and his non-violent action. He knew they would have to get rid of him, but he did not turn away. He willingly gave himself to that martyr’s death as part of his attempt to show us the way he wants us to live. And without that death we would not have Easter or Pentecost.
So Jesus gives us a very different picture of what it means to be a good leader, a good King, a good Shepherd. He shows us how a good king pours out his life for others, puts his own needs behind the needs of his people. It’s hard to consider this without asking ourselves what kind of leaders we have or what kind of leaders we want?
Not that we expect our leaders to fling themselves off the capitol dome to appease God – – – but it would be nice to see them working for the common good rather than their own power or wealth, wouldn’t it? Don’t we deserve leaders who work for the good of all our citizens, not just the men, not just for the white folks, not just for the wealthy, etc. but for all the people.
Sometimes it occurs to me that I’d like to send Steve Schaitberger to Washington to ask the Senate and the House, “What part of all don’t you understand?” I’d like to see them working together to do the work of government, which is to govern in the best interest of ALL the people. There are people like this in government, but not nearly enough of them!
There are several versions of a cartoon floating around in which a person berates God, asking him why he allows poverty and war and injustice in the world. And God replies, “I was about to ask you the same question!”
Considering this week’s lessons and listening to the news of this past week, brings me to sum up the lessons in a paraphrase of a past president. “Ask not what God can do for us. Ask instead what we can do for God.” One of the things we can do for God and for the Kingdom is to vote and work for leaders who care for all the people, as Jesus cared for them. AMEN.