Date: November 26, 2017
Title: “Liberating Power”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Today is “Christ the King Sunday” – a relative newcomer in the liturgical year of the Western Christian Church. Christ the King debuted in 1925, in response to oppressive governments around the world that were demanding ultimate allegiance from their citizens. Pope Pius XI was particularly moved by the resistance of Mexican Christians who held parades throughout the nation (often at great personal peril), parades in which they proclaimed “Cristo Rey! – Christ is King!” A few years after its inception Christ the King Sunday was moved from a Sunday in October to this, the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year (it all starts over again next Sunday with the first Sunday of Advent… so you have about a week if you’d like to make a New Year’s Resolution).
It is always challenging to preach on Christ the King, so much so that I usually slough it off on the Associate Pastor. I tried that this year, in fact, but it turns out that Josh had already preached once in November, so I was stuck. Looking back through my files, I discovered a sermon I preached a few years ago, which I titled “Pomp in Circumstance.” It seemed like a good title for Christ the King Sunday – a little intriguing, perhaps, a little confusing, even mysterious – making you wonder what’s coming next. But then I quickly realized that was my problem too, as I found myself wondering what does come next?
I think that may be the enduing problem with the whole notion of “Christ the King”. It is a great sounding title, a catchy phrase, even a handy theological notion (if you can figure out what it means). But the problem is, once you’ve proclaimed it – Christ the King – you have to figure out what comes next!
I find myself reminded this morning of the old folk tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. You remember how that goes. There is a vain emperor who is tricked into thinking he has the most beautiful clothes in the world. When, in fact, the tailor has only sold him an illusion. So the emperor goes parading down the street in front of all his citizens, who likewise convince themselves that his outfit is glorious, believing that only the truly good, wise, talented or gifted can see it. But there is one lone boy who tells the truth, one lone soul who sees the Emperor in his birthday suit and cries, “He has no clothes!”
Sometimes, on a day like today, it feels as if we are standing on the side of the parade ground. We are standing alongside one another, watching God parade through town, and convincing each other we’ve seen the splendor of his new clothes. We collude together to see what we want to see, as we build each other up and buy each other time with our cries of “God is so good…so beautiful…so popwerful!” We imagine that somehow all the beauty and goodness and power will rub off on us because we think we “deserve” this King, or that we have earned the parade.
And then, somewhere in the far reaches of our consciousness, we hear faint stirrings of honesty. Gasping between sobs and guffaws, something in our souls points out that “there are no clothes”. It is not God who has built up illusions or fallen prey to a trickster – rather, we have. We have built up illusions of both our own merit and of God’s royal realm.
So here we are, approaching Advent, and who do we get but a fanatical and outrageous prophet Ezekiel, telling us that we are so far lost in our illusions that God has to come and find us. The prophet tells us that God is in charge of our restoration, but that if we are hoping to glimpse a king of glory and power, of great wealth or military might, if we think we will find an authority rooted in oppression… well then, the emperor has no clothes!
It is not surprising that the early Christians (most of whom were Jews) took Ezekiel’s reference to the House of David as an anticipation of Jesus. It is not surprising to find Jesus quoted in Matthew’s Gospel referring to himself as both a King and a shepherd:
When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats… (Matthew 25:30 from The Message)
All of a sudden, our emperor has put on clothes of justice and righteousness and peace, and has gone back to the beginning of God’s royal line… as a shepherd who goes looking for the scattered sheep, wherever they’ve been abandoned or wandered astray. Here we have a shepherd who cares for their wounds and helps them to heal. Sounds good, right? It is an image of comfort. And yet… there’s an uncomfortable edge to this shepherd as well. Because this is a shepherd who takes sides.
This shepherd sides with the weak, the outcast, the damaged, the diseased, the abandoned, and the marginalized. Nadia Bolz Weber puts it this way:
Given the way I benefit from violence, (and from the world as it is, rather than the world as God would have it)…given the fact that I too want my enemies to be destroyed, what I need – what we need, what this broken world needs – is not a king with the greatest arsenal. We don’t need a King who wins the violence and retribution cycle, or a CEO who can protect our wealth. What we need is a shepherd who refuses to play that game at all. What we need is a savior who knows that more violence will never save us from our addiction to violence. What we need is Christ the King who knows that our need to be right and our need for everyone else to be wrong… and our belief that God favors us above all others… is so, so small.
What we need is for Jesus to liberate our notion of power by reminding us of the centrality of God’s love. Malidoma Patrice Some was born some 60 years ago in West Africa. His early childhood was spent in a Jesuit boarding school, where the priests hoped he would follow them in a vocation within the church. Instead,
he returned to his indigenous culture after earning 3 master’s degrees and 2 doctorates from the Sorbonne. In his autobiography he writes about his other education, in his tribal initiation. It was a 40-day ordeal of physical challenges and transcendental experiences designed to help the initiates see whether or not the “emperor” (their perceived notions of God and human life) had any clothes on at all. He writes:
The first night of initiation the coach ordered us to sit. Four elders posted themselves around us while a fifth elder stood in the center of the circle. Walking slowly around the circle he spoke incessantly and breathlessly as if in a hurry to get the job done. What he said was his… the place where he was standing was the center. Each one of us possessed a center that he had grown away from after birth. To be born is to lose contact with our center. The center is both within and without – it is everywhere. But we must realize that it exists and we must find our way back to it. For without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from or where we are going.
Perhaps that is what the little boy in the folk tale is reminding the people with his cry, “the emperor has no clothes!” Certainly it is what our own souls are asking us to acknowledge today. For what good, really, is all the pomp in any circumstance, if we fail to recognize the center of our lives?
The center is within and without… that is what Christ the King means to me. To be a Christian is for me to know that when I recognize Christ in this world I know who I am, where I come from and where I am going.
I may not have any particularly positive connections with “king” as an image for Christ, but I certainly can relate to that notion of CENTER. When Jesus liberates my understanding of power by bringing God’s love to the forefront of all our lives, then even Christ the King begins to make sense for me. And if I can suspend my expectations, let go of my illusions and enter into the surprising reality of this God, Jesus is not only liberating power… but it turns out, he is liberating me. And also you. Thanks be to God! Amen.