November 26, 2017
Christ the King Sunday
Matthew 25: 31-46
So, this is my first time preaching on Christ the King Sunday and I now finally understand why all my fellow preachers grumble and complain every year when today comes around. Because every time I thought about preaching this week, I descended into this terrible funk that was hard to shake. And so, my first task when writing this sermon was to figure out why the Feast of Christ the King was making me feel so funky. I mean, maybe it was the fact that I didn’t even know Christ the King Sunday was a thing until I became a pastor. I don’t have lots of fond memories of this day… unlike the rest of you. I’ve never been invited to any of yourChrist the King parties, where you eat your Christ the King cakes and make your Christ the King cocktails….oh, wait, is that not a thing? I guess it makes sense that none of us know what today is all about, because it was literally created by the pope in 1925. Mussolini had just dissolved parliament, the king was stripped of his powers and Italy fell headlong into a fascist dictatorship. And Hitler was right behind him. So, to those who were anxious about the toppling of the king, the Pope was saying to Christians: “hey, these earthly kings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and remember that ultimately we belong to something greater, the kingdom of God.” But while I realize that Christ the King Sunday was created out of pastoral concern for the people and for all their anxieties, I have to wonder how helpful it really was. I have to wonder if lifting up the triumphalist, regal, scepter and crown imagery of Jesus was the right move. Because, while we may not be living under a dictatorship, I do think we are living in a similar moment to 1925 when the norms of our society are being eroded and that forms of leadership we once cherished have become caricatures of the gravitas they once held. And yet, I’m not sure it would be that helpful if the Church declared that from here on out, one Sunday a year will now be the Feast of Jesus Christ, Commander in Chief of the Universe. Because the thing I keep returning to is that though scripture does refer to Jesus as King, it more often talks about Jesus as a slave. The very opposite of a king. And in those few places where he is called a king, the description of his kingship just doesn’t seem very kingly at all.
Jesus is the one who is called King, but while riding on a wild donkey. Jesus is the one who is called King, but while hanging from the cross. Jesus is the one who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” “Therefore,” Paul says, “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” And the more I searched scripture, the more I realized that every place Jesus is called King, he is also called slave. And so, to remember Christ the King is to erase half of the image of who Jesus really is. Jesus, the Slave-King. And it’s this Jesus, the Slave-King Jesus that I desperately need to hear about when the norms of my society are breaking down and I fear for the safety of my fellow human beings. I don’t need to hear about Jesus on the throne, I need to hear about Jesus on the cross, Jesus in my neighbors who fear deportation, Jesus in the dignity of black bodies and women’s bodies clamoring for respect and autonomy, Jesus in my trans siblings, in the opioid addict and in the children of God who sleep outside this building every night. I need this Jesus, the slave-king Jesus, who reminds me that our healing and integration as a society doesn’t start at the top, but starts from the bottom. And that if we want our world to be whole, we have to stop looking at who’s on the throne or in the oval office or in the executive board room, and look at those farthestfrom the top.
Which is what we hear in today’s Gospel. That the key to human flourishing isn’t in the Dow Jones report or in the scope of a nation’s global influence, but it’s in how we care for the least of these. But somewhere along the line, today’s Gospel has been twisted into a self-centered, individualistic call to charity, rather than a picture of what it takes for the kingdom of God to be revealed among us. We’ve misunderstood today’s gospel in part because of translation. Remember that part from the beginning of the gospel: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” That part where it says, “he will separate peopleone from another,” really says “he will separate themone from another.” And themrefers backs to “all the nations.” So, the verse should read, “All the nationswill be gathered before him, and he will separate all the nationsone from another.” And the difference between nationsand peoplemakes all the difference in the world. Because when we translate the word as people, the rest of the Gospel reads like a really scary motivational speech that we, as individuals, must make sure we care for the poor or we will end up in Hell. And maybe that’s good news on the days when you do volunteer in the soup kitchen or show up for Operation Turkey Sandwich, but it’s not such good news on those other days, when you stay home from that protest you said you were going to and instead watch the new season of the Great British Bake Off. When we take this gospel to be about individual people, then it just becomes another cause for anxiety as we try to neurotically figure out the ledger sheet of our life, and pray like Hell that our sheep days outweigh our goat days…all the while knowing that they probably do not.
But if we understand the gospel to be about the judgment of the nations, then it takes on a whole different meaning. If it’s the nations that are judged, then this is a gospel written against the evils of empire, privilege and power. It’s a warning to the civilizations of this world that if you want to flourish, take care of those at the bottom first. BUTif you choose to do what so many nations have done before and, say, concentrate wealth among the 1%, imprison minorities and the poor, or if you value the profit margins of weapons manufacturers over lives, and give tax breaks to Amazon and Google without building affordable housing for your citizens, if you choose to do those things, well, you will get what you get. Your civilization will be reduced to the trash heap of history like so many that have gone before it. Because God has built a universe where the rich and powerful cannot win in the end. God has created a world where we are all interconnected and where your salvation is my salvation. And that if we want a taste of the kingdom of God, we know where to begin. We begin at the bottom.
I’ve seen firsthand in my own family how our society’s treatment of those at the bottom leads towards or away from our flourishing. My grandfather, who died just a couple years ago, only had an 8thgrade education. In all my birthday cards, he would write, “Luv U” while my grandmother would write a novel, because he did not know how to write more than a handful of words. And for most of his life, he drove a delivery truck for Wonder Bread. But by the time he died, he owned 5 houses, an RV and four cars. And he was able to do that because he was in a union, and the society around him valued the working poor enough to keep housing prices low and keep benefits high. But today, the working poor in most American cities, including Denver, struggle to simply pay rent for one home, much less even think about buying a home. And while everyone certainly did not flourish in the America of the 50s, 60s and 70s, we have drastically eroded all the mechanisms we previously had for collectively caring for the poor and I believe our society is paying the price for that now.
Because every time a gunman shoots up a church, nightclub or a concert, I stop and wonder if this is the punishment Jesus was talking about. Not a punishment that comes from God, but a judgment that comes from ourselves, when our society is out of balance. When our society says it’s everyone for themselves, kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. When those who are desperate enough look around and see no way out, when they live in a world that doesn’t acknowledge that sometimes we need a leg up, we need a safety net for when times are tough. When that happens, eventually the chickens will come home to roost…and those chickens are pissed.
But there is good news, according to the gospel. And the good news is that if we want to flourish, we know where to begin. We begin with Jesus, the Slave-King, who has already begun to rescue us from our addictions to power and privilege. Jesus, the Slave-King who waits on the trash heap of history, for when we’re tired and fed up with ourselves and all our misplaced alliances, and he is ready to show us how to really live, from the bottom up. Amen. And Happy Christ the Slave-King Sunday.