The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King
20 November 2016
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Whenever I preach on this Last Sunday after Pentecost, I seem to feel obliged to remind us all that “Christ the King” is not the official name for this Sunday in the Book of Common Prayer, and that no Sunday entitled “Christ the King” is found in the traditional Catholic sources. Indeed, this feast only appears in the Roman Catholic liturgical books in the mid-1920s, when the Vatican invented it as a reaction and response to the weakening of the papacy’s secular power in Italy and, even more importantly, as a bold statement about the sovereignty of God in the face of the rise of fascism. The Roman Church moved the celebration to the last Sunday of the liturgical year only in the 1960s. This is not, therefore, a solemnity of any antiquity and it certainly has nothing to do with the Anglican tradition or even the American context .... Or, given the events of the last few weeks, does it?
We have just endured one of the most divisive elections in American history, or at least since the mid-1850s when, struggling over issues of slavery, the Whig Party split and collapsed, giving rise to the No Nothings and the formation of the Republican Party that gave us Abraham Lincoln. It is a sad fact that since then not as much has changed in our national life as we would like to think. Furthermore, almost two full generations of activism on issues of equality for people of colour, women, queer Americans, and, really, for anyone who isn’t a cisgendered straight white man, has still left us a deeply racist and misogynist nation. We live in a country where powerful white people (especially white men) were told they were powerless and that what power they had was about to be taken away from them. From this place of fear, we elected as president someone who thinks it is acceptable to do whatever it takes to make money, to belittle women, ridicule disabled people, make broad, defamatory statements about groups of people based upon race and ethnicity, and register and round them up.
In our culture we throw about the term “fascist” rather lightly when we don’t agree with some policy that says we can't do what we want. This time, however, the term is right on the mark. New York City in 2016 is not Mussolini’s Rome or Hitler’s Berlin, but many vulnerable people are afraid for their lives and livelihoods, as if it were. And for me, growing up in New York City in the 1970s at the height of the women’s and gay rights movements and in the aftermath of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, this is a moment that I, quite foolishly as it turns out, never imagined we could possibly see. To quote G. K Chesterton, “Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die.”
As if taking a page from the Hebrew prophets, we have once again witnessed the apparent victory of the powerful who have sought their personal advantage and enrichment at the expense of others, at the expense of justice and Love. It is possible for us, for our children, to see this and come to believe that is the path to success. I can assure us is not: Not in the life to come and certainly, most certainly, not in this life where we have the opportunity to incarnate the very love of God.
And for those of you who know my theology, it is a big deal that I am standing right here, embracing Christ the King, our true leader, as if I were a biretta and fiddle back chasuble-wearing Roman Catholic cardinal in 1930s Rome. Today I stand before you, preaching certainly the most overtly political sermon of my life, but I assure you that I am not speaking to you in a party political way. This sermon is political in that it is addressing fundamental questions about our participation in civic life, in the life of the world that God has made, proclaimed to be Good, and that God gave to us to care for as stewards. The power that stands in opposition to the profound failure to embrace the politics of Love, is God in Christ, our ruler and guide, who has opened to us the power to fight hate and ignorance, racism and misogyny.
The words from the prophet Jeremiah that we heard just now have never rung truer:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.
While the power of these shepherds is fleeting and their riches will fade, nevertheless what those earthly rules do has consequences and has enormous power to inflict painful damage on individuals and communities, on other creatures, and on the world God has made. We can be assured, however, that God’s purpose remains steadfast:
Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing,” says the Lord.
God calls upon those who “take council for the nations of the world” to rule with equity and justice, to care for the people and not enrich themselves at the people's expense. God promises us that
the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
God promises that this kind of evil will not stand against the sovereignty of God. And we affirm that God sent Jesus Christ, our true king, the king unlike any secular monarch, to teach us the ways of love and justice, the ways of inclusion and forgiveness, and empower our loving action in the world in imitation of those very values.
Jesus does not stand with the powerful who revel in their power. Jesus does not stand with the powerful who proclaim their superiority over others. Jesus does not stand with those who exercise their power against those on the margins. The Gospel of Jesus Christ our King calls us to welcome and dine with the stranger, to heal and care for the least and the lost and those forgotten by society, to raise people up from lives of poverty. Our recent election has shown us that opposition to these forces for good remains strong in our society and remains so, I believe, out of a sense of fear. Those of us like me who enjoy power and privilege and who could easily sink into the shadows in the coming time, need to listen to the words of our King and be not afraid. Giving up power is what we are called to do and in doing so we will then gain our lives. And I pray that those of us with power and voice will encourage others with power to resist with us the tyranny of oppression and embrace the example of our true king.
Because of my privilege it is harder for me to speak to those who fear that the forces of darkness are closing in on them simply because of who they are. I can, however, proclaim loudly that this place, this community will stand strongly for the power of Christ the King, our true sovereign, and will seek to embody, incarnate that power so the inclusive light of Gospel love will shine brightly from this place and, we hope, expand to fill the world.
Calling the nation to account and holding our civic life up to the standards of the Gospel are essential and foundational elements of our Anglo-Catholic tradition. As Americans and Christians we must continue to speak out and pray for our leaders that they will not fail us, especially that they will not fail the most vulnerable among us. But we must do more than pray with our thoughts and words. At the heart of prayer is the opening up of the self at its very core to God and to the truth of who we are and what we can do and be. We must pray not with our lips but with our lives to the giving of ourselves to God’s service, to the service of love. We are called to follow Jesus Christ our King in all virtuous and godly living, to love our neighbours as ourselves and to live up to what Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 (the Gospel for this Sunday in Year A of our lectionary), that as we have loved and acted for the benefit of others, especially of the least and lost and marginalised, we are loving God, bearing that very service to God. We are called to action, to the incarnation of Gospel Love into this moment by what we say and what we do, to bear witness in this moment to the example of our King, who offered himself on the cross to enable the victory of Love over death itself.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, 17 November 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume