I don’t like monarchies.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
November 22, 2020—Christ the King/Thanksgiving Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24; Matthew 25:31–46
I am a republican, in that I like republics. And a democrat, in that I prefer those republics to be democracies. As sympathetic as I was to the heroes in The Lord of the Rings, who would eventually see their friend Aragorn restore the Kingdom of Gondor, I was more sympathetic to the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars who were fighting to restore the Republic.
I have a relative on my maternal grandfather’s side, my fourth cousin seven times removed, Roger Sherman, who was a Founding Father, who wrote the Connecticut Compromise and signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In my family, we’re all very proud of our forefather who helped to found the American republic, a republic born in rebellion against a monarch.
I don’t like the arbitrariness of monarchies. The idea that someone gets to be king just because his father was king. That doesn’t seem fair. You don’t get to be president just because your father was president, well… okay, you might get a head start, but they still have to vote for you.
It makes me uncomfortable with some of the “allies” we have around the world, particularly in the Middle East, where some of our ‘best friends’ are despotic monarchies who distrust their people.
And so, you might imagine that Christ the King Sunday is not a Sunday whose metaphors sit easily with me. Despite the fact that god is a king and jesus is a king are among the most commonly encountered metaphors in Christianity, especially in our hymns.
But today 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. In the passage we heard read from Ezekiel, there is messianic hope and promise:
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
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 he 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 upon which Game of Thrones is based 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.
But that’s where the Gospel vision challenges our understanding. In a scene evocative of Ezekiel’s passage in which God as shepherd judges between the fat sheep and the lean sheep:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’Matthew 25:31–40
Here are some typical tropes of kingship: the Son of Man as a king sitting on the “throne of his glory,” holding court, and making judgments. But then, as he judges, he makes it clear on what basis he is judging: that his people should have fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the prisoners. When the king is asked when it was that the righteous did this, he tells them, “just as you did it to the least of these” you did it to me.
Here is a king not concerned with subservience or fealty, not concerned with loyalty oaths and pledges of support, not concerned with gifts and tribute, not concerned with power and influence, not concerned with displays of military power and might, but with service—and service to the “least of these.”
This is a vision of kingship that is in stark contrast with the nature of human kingship. It is a kingship defined by humility and service rather than by power and violence, a kingship that not only models this ethic by the king, but one that demands it of the citizens of that kingdom.
This vision in Matthew 25 is a bold one and a challenging one, but it is not alone in the gospel witness by any stretch of the imagination.
A. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews
Images of this radical understanding of kingship can be found in Mark’s gospel and the declaration that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Images can be found in the parables of Luke, and this image can be found in every gospel’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, in which Jesus is crucified with the words Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews inscribed over his cross.
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, 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 no 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 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, who commands us to serve “the least of these.”
Because 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 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 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 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 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.
Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24 • For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Matthew 25:31–46 • “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.””