The Sunday Sermon: The True King

November 21, Christ the King; ingathering
Penelope Bridges
The True King

Today’s a day for endings: it’s the last Sunday of the church year, the last Sunday of the long green season that began back in May after Pentecost; the last Sunday of Year B of the Sunday lectionary and Year One of the Daily Office lectionary; and of course the last day of the official pledge campaign for 2022. And, appropriately, we are hearing some last words, in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures.

In my youth the phrase “Famous last words” was often heard, in response to declarations of bravado. You know, statements like “It’s perfectly safe!” or “Hold my beer!” or “Watch this!” Last words are significant: the last words of a dying person take on particular weight in a court of law. The last words you ever say to a loved one may be a source of lasting regret. The last words of a speech, a prayer, or a sermon echo in the air after they are spoken and might be what the listeners take away with them. And when we say that someone has the last word on something, it means they speak with authority.

The 2 Samuel reading, headlined as the last words of David, takes us back to the summer, when we read through the highlights of the whole Saul/Samuel/David saga. Last week we heard Hannah’s song, the other bookend from the very beginning of that saga. If you were paying attention throughout our summer Sundays this final prayer of David might raise up some echoes of all the drama and complexity of that story: God’s unlikely choice of the youngest son; the killing of Goliath; Saul’s jealousy and madness; the corruption and power struggles; the love between Jonathan and David; the infighting and disfunction of David’s children; the shame of his violation of Bathsheba followed by the horror of the plot to kill her husband and the death of the baby. And now David’s dying words complete the cycle.

Compare King David and all his failings with Christ the King whom we honor today. We celebrate Jesus as the ideal king, incorruptible, merciful, and just, willing to give up his power and even his life for the sake of his people. No human monarch or leader can live up to the standard set by Jesus. The seduction of power is almost too strong to resist. We are familiar with the corrupt ways power is used in our world: we see it in the dragging of heels over addressing climate change. We see it in the violent reactions to calls for reparations and racial justice. We see it in the attempts to make voting more difficult or to gerrymander districts. We see it in the church’s coverups of clergy misconduct and the abuse of children and indigenous peoples. We see it, more subtly, in educational requirements that assume a level of privilege and opportunity not shared by everyone, and employment regulations that limit the choice of clothing or hairstyle to one culture’s norms, and perhaps in the readiness of a jury to believe a claim of self-defence by a young white man with a high-powered rifle. It’s a rare leader who will take the risk of handing over power to those who have been powerless.

The Gospel story from John catapults us into the middle of Jesus’ trial, where Jesus is facing the full weight of imperial power. Pilate is struggling to understand the situation and the man before him: Who are you? Why do your own people want to kill you? Are you a king? And, in the line after this excerpt, inexplicably omitted from the lectionary, What is truth? Pilate has one idea of truth; Jesus has another.

The question of what is truth is still a very relevant issue today as we struggle with alternative facts and rampant manipulation of data. Telling the truth, interpreting what is true, speaking truth to power, all of these challenge us. We need the church to help us navigate the truth in a world full of misdirection and misinformation.  Jesus says the truth will set us free. Somebody has added “But first it will make you really mad.”

We depend on our leaders to tell us the truth, to earn our trust. History is littered with examples of the opposite. This very scene in the Gospel comes about only because the leaders of Jesus’ community lie about him and bribe or force others to lie about him. They are not interested in the truth, only in holding onto their power, and Jesus’s challenge to that power frightens them.

Everything we have learned about history is now open to re-examination and re-interpretation. Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s I was taught that the IRA was a terrorist organization, but my friend Dermot was taught that they were freedom fighters and heroes. Which story was true?

Were we told the truth about the feast we commemorate on Thanksgiving? Did the pilgrims really arrive in an empty continent, offered to them by God for refuge as a new promised land? Or did they disrupt and destroy a rich culture, a way of life centuries old, enslaving and abusing the inhabitants of the land, treating them as less than human, because their way of life was not the European way of life, and their names for God were not Judeo-Christian names?

Sixty years ago Americans were told that smoking was good for our health. In Ireland not so long ago, pregnant women were advised to drink Guinness. There are widespread beliefs today that poor people are poor because of character flaws; that a family can survive on a single minimum-wage income; that people who are homeless don’t want to be housed. What is the true story?

About six weeks ago we hung a banner over the south porch, timing it to coincide with the COP26 climate conference. It says “Destroying the Planet is Against our Religion.” I believe this is a true statement: God has entrusted us with this earth and everything on it, to care for it, not to destroy it. I was asked if it was prudent to make such a strong statement during the pledge campaign. It is tempting to soft-pedal what some might consider a political position, for the sake of keeping donors happy, but I decided that the climate crisis is serious enough that we should not sugar-coat the frightening truth. Don’t prove me wrong when we gather in the pledges!

And, what about God and the Bible? When people ask if the Bible is “true” what are they asking? The Bible contains profound truths about humanity. It isn’t a scientific textbook or even a history book as we would define it. It holds internal contradictions. Some of it seems to be just plain wrong. Is it true that God is at one and the same time a vengeful, angry God who condones cruelty and demands obedience, and a loving, all-embracing God who welcomes the sinner and forgives readily? Well, that depends on how much weight you give to different parts of the Bible. At some point in our faith journey I think we have to choose which image of God we will recognize, which story we will take as the truth.

The Gospel for today tells us that Pilate’s idea of a king is not Jesus’s; that the Roman Empire with its legions and invasions, the worldly idea of a kingdom, is not God’s vision for humanity. The yoke of human rule is heavy, but the yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light.

There is sharp irony in John’s account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus: he is accused of setting himself up to be a king, a crime punishable by death, and he is even robed and crowned in a cruel parody of homage. He never refers to himself as a king; it’s a title forced upon him along with those thorns. But we know that he is a king, and that his kingship cannot be diminished by anything his enemies do to him. To the Romans and the religious authorities, the idea of a king is indistinguishable from the idea of coercive force and corruption. They imagine that Jesus plans a military uprising, using the violence of the world to take their power from them and wield it himself. That is the complete opposite of the kind of king that Jesus actually is.

And yet, if Jesus were to prevail and the Kingdom of God come to fruition on earth, the whole structure of earthly power, with its injustice and violence, would be overthrown, and there would no longer be the possibility of anyone being that kind of ruler. That is a far more profoundly subversive revolution than a violent rebellion in a violent world; in fact, it’s hard to imagine such a radical revolution.

As followers of Jesus we are called to work towards that revolution of peace and justice. We are called to reject violent ways of action, speech, and thought. We are called to live in gratitude for the love and beauty that surrounds us every day of our lives, to trust in the God whose kingdom is already inaugurated in Jesus but not yet fully operational on earth.

The prevalent image of Christianity in this country today is of a religion that condemns and excludes. Many of us come from Christian traditions that taught us that we were unworthy of God’s love. I’m frankly amazed that so many people are willing to give the church a second chance. But that grim picture of the church isn’t the truth that we know. We know a different kind of Christianity, one that opens wide the door and embraces every individual, making a place at the table and cheering us on to be the best we can be. We believe that the God of Jesus Christ is faithful, that God’s loving kindness never fails, that mercy trumps punishment. But our truth is not the truth that many people believe.

So we have work to do, to get the truth out there to all those people who desperately need to know they are loved and accepted. And that’s why we come to church, to be fed by God’s word and the sacraments, to be encouraged in our truth-telling, and to replenish our own stores of belovedness, so that when we are sent out by the last words of the Eucharist, we will have the strength and courage to tell the truth in the name of Christ and bring God’s kingdom a little bit closer to this earth.

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