Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 24, 2013—Christ the King/Thanksgiving Sunday
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; Luke 23:33-43
Jeremiah 23:1–6 • Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the LORD. This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You haven’t attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the LORD. I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the LORD. The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The LORD Is Our Righteousness.
Luke 1:68–79 • “Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”
Luke 23:33–43 • When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing. The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.” The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.” One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.””
Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I was not among the seemingly millions of people who were all gaga about the birth of George Windsor. For those of you who don’t recognize that name, that’s the child born to Charles and Kate Middleton-Windsor. He’s a cute kid, I guess, but I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Nor was I really that interested when his parents got married, and the spectacle that that made.
People will talk about story-book or fairy-tale weddings and so one. They’ll get all excited by the birth of the royal heir and hundreds, if not thousands, of broadcast hours are spent on the coverage. And I didn’t watch a second of it.
Those of you who know me will not find that surprising. For I am not a fan of monarchies. They offend my republican sensibilities as an American. They are a legacy of inherited wealth and privilege, of status based on birthright rather than on accomplishment, of the notion that by virtue of heredity, some people are more important than others without having done anything at all to merit such attention. Americans have long been suspicious of inherited privilege and hereditary rights: it’s why we have estate taxes and a Constitutional clause that forbids the granting of any “title of Nobility.”
There were a lot of babies born the day that George was born, many of whom are much more in need of our attention than a child who will never be in want his entire life by virtue of his good luck to have been born to the right parents.
Now, I know that there are those who argue that the British monarchy is effectively powerless and harmless. That may be true, but it’s the very idea of it—that some are born to privilege and others are not—that is so troubling.
And so, you might imagine that Christ the King Sunday is not a Sunday whose metaphors sit easily with me. It is a Sunday on which we read of the prophets predicting the day when a new king of David’s line would arise and rule as a wise king. The passage from the first chapter of Luke echoes that sentiment by proclaiming that God has “raised up a mighty savior” from the House of David. But these images, while hopeful, do not diverge too much from the standard images of kings. Oh, the long awaited king will be just and wise, but the broader imagery remains. And still a descendant of another king.
II. THE PROBLEMS WITH KINGS
People of faith have long had a problem with monarchy. The bulk of the prophetic tradition of Israel is suspicious of monarchies. In the four centuries following the Exodus, Israel was governed by charismatic leaders who were raised up in times of crisis: Samson–a man who whose Nazirite vows were the source of his strength and leadership. Deborah–a woman whose masterful leadership helped to defeat powerful enemies. Gideon, a leader who wanted a smaller army than that which was available to him, an army of the most faithful men, who defeated Israel’s enemies handily. Israelite society was relatively level, egalitarian. But then the people desired a monarchy, in order to fight the Philistines and to be more like the nations that surrounded them. Samuel, who was chief prophet in Israel eventually conceded to the demands of the elders to appoint a king for Israel, but not before he delivered a stern warning at God’s insistence:
“This is how the king will rule over you and operate,” Samuel said: “He will take your sons, and will use them for his chariots and his cavalry and as runners for his chariot. He will use them as his commanders of troops of one thousand and troops of fifty, or to do his plowing and his harvesting, or to make his weapons or parts for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, or bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves and give them to his servants. He will give one-tenth of your grain and your vineyards to his officials and servants. He will take your male and female servants, along with the best of your cattle and donkeys, and make them do his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and then you yourselves will become his slaves! When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you chose for yourselves, but on that day the LORD won’t answer you.” (1 Samuel 8:11–18 CEB)
The prophets remained deeply suspicious of monarchy because they believed that it detracted from God’s sovereignty. It also led to a whole host of social justice ills in society, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and with the powerful exploiting the weak.
For this and many other reasons, there are many for whom the notions of God as a King, or Christ as a King, or of the Kingdom of God seem to harken back to a time when society was very differently structured and ordered: with kings and queens, lords and servants, a landed aristocracy and a great mass of peasants working that land to benefit someone else.
There is something distasteful about invoking hopes for something that you associate with oppression and injustice, with patriarchy and privilege. So, you’ll hear Christians increasingly saying things like the “Realm of God” or the “Dominion of God” or sometimes the “Kin-dom of God.” In my office I have a book entitled The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God. (Personally, I really like “Commonwealth of God” myself, since “Republic of God” sounds like the kind of thing a religious extremist would set up.)
And it’s not just Christians. There is a prayer said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called the “Avinu Malkeinu” which means “Our Father, Our King. Interestingly, in Reform Judaism, the Avinu Malkeinu part of the prayer is always said in Hebrew, and the rest of it is in English. The patriarchal, monarchical words remain in the opaque foreign language. There is increasingly a resistance among people of faith to employ language to describe God that smacks of injustice and autocracy.
III. THE WORLDLY EXAMPLES
Because when you think about the images we have of kings and kingdoms, they are not positive ones. History provokes a lot of rethinking about kings and kingship.
In the wake of the American Revolution, such was our distaste for royalty and autocracy, that it changed entire segments of our theology. The Calvinist, Puritan churches of New England began to change their attitudes about Predestination as a result. Would God really determine who was saved and who was damned before time began? That sounded like the behavior of an autocrat, like the very king the colonies had just rebelled against. In those same Puritan churches, the theology of free will began to take hold, and today the descendent of the Puritan churches, the United Church of Christ, is among the most open-minded churches in America.
Even in the evangelical churches beginning in the 19th Century, there was a shift toward more democratic-mindedness where people were encouraged to come forward and “cast their ballot” for God. So it seems that over the last couple of centuries, there has been a growing discomfort with the idea of casting God as a tyrant, an autocrat, a dictator: a king.
It’s interesting that our literature should so often fail to recognize the reality that most kings are bad or inept. The good kings are woefully outnumbered by the bad. In the Bible there are only a couple of Kings that are described in a positive light: David (until had had Urriah the Hittite killed), Solomon (until he allowed the construction of pagan shrines), Josiah (until he was killed at the Plains of Megiddo). The wicked or inept kings of Israel and Judah outnumber the good ones by a wide margin. If people in the west have grown more tolerant of Kings and Queens it’s only because they have lost some of the ability to inflict harm that they once had.
But in much of our literature, especially in the fantasy genre, so much hope is put in kings. They are the last hope against evil forces and the motif of a return to the throne is often there. It’s found in the Chronicles of Narnia, it’s definitely a part of the Lord of the Rings.
Curiously, only George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire seems to understand the harsh reality: kings and queens seek their own power and are rarely motivated by anything like compassion. The ones who are compassionate are quickly outmaneuvered or outmatched politically and their lives are short. The ones who are ruthless and manipulative often succeed. And Martin really gets to the heart of it when he notes that those vying for power have very little of the ordinary people’s interest at heart: “The common people pray for rain, healthy children and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.”
Perhaps that is the most troubling thing about Christ the King Sunday is the suggestion that Christ is a king, and kings are detached from the people they rule. Their lives are lives of privilege and isolation, of power and opulence, utterly removed from that of the people.
It’s why so many people view the charge hung over Jesus’ cross—“This is the King of the Jews”—as Roman sarcasm. What kind of king is this? A Galilean carpenter who preached about love? But some, including historian Reza Aslan, have noted that the Romans rarely were sarcastic in their charges. If they hung it over his cross, it is because they felt it appropriate to the crime. The Romans hung those words over Jesus’ cross because he was legitimately claiming kingship.
But why would that have threatened the Romans so much? It’s because the kingship that Jesus was claiming was not like the kingdom ships of the world. It was far more dangerous.
Jesus was claiming a kingship in the kingdom that would overturn the ways of the world. Jesus was simply claiming a kinship with in the system that existed at the time, he was claiming a kingship that would undo the system altogether. A system in which the first would be last and the last would be first.
This is what was so threatening about Jesus. Not because he claims to be a king, so that would be threaded not. But because he claimed a kingship that undid the authority of all the kings of the world.
The title on Jesus’ cross is ironic, but not because the Romans intended it as sarcasm. It is ironic because Jesus claims kingship while subverting it at the same time. So often, the way Christians get around the very real fact that Jesus did not succeed in throwing the Romans out and setting up an independent kingdom of Israel the way his disciples thought he would, is by spiritualizing away what he accomplished. “Oh, he didn’t free the people from the Romans but he freed them from sin.” “He didn’t set up a new kingdom but he took his place beside God in the Kingdom of Heaven.” And so on.
But Jesus’ kingship is neither the ordinary mode of kingship that we in the modern era have come to distrust so much, nor is it some spiritualized version of it that has not real world implications. Jesus’ kingship is radical and transformative, changing the way we even think about the word.
And Jesus doesn’t just challenge the hereditary monarchies that I find so distasteful. He challenges all systems of power, monarchies and republics, empires and federations. Rule need not be hereditary to nevertheless result in “kings” who wield power for their own ends.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is also Thanksgiving Sunday. And while the two come together only because of the operation of the calendar, there is much that we can connect today.
Because while we live in a world where kings play their “game of thrones” in order to amass the power to dominate others, we can give thanks that we follow a king who forsakes power to stand in solidarity with others.
Because while we live in a world in which kings use power to amass more power at the expense of others, we can give thanks that we follow a king who uses power to help others.
Because while we live in a world in which kings and rulers are detached, isolated, separate, we can give thanks that we follow a king who comes to us where we are, as we are.
Because while we live in a world in which kings do not protect justice but allow injustice to endure, we can give thanks that we follow a king who calls us to lives of justice and righteousness.
Because while we live in a world of hierarchy and patriarchy, where kings defend the status quo as sacred right, we can give thanks that we follow a king who challenged the status quo, who empowered the marginalized, and who called power to account.
Because while we live in a world where kings use nationalism and fear of others to secure their own legitimacy and power, we can give thanks that we follow a king who embraces the other, who helps us to see ourselves through the eye of the other, and discover our common humanity.
Because while we live in a world where kings use fear to accomplish cynical political aims, we can give thanks that we follow a king who shares a love so radical that it transforms the world itself.