This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 26 at St. Aidan’s in San Francisco by middler Mia Benjamin. The readings for this sermon are: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23,, and Matthew 25:31-46.
There’s a recent graduate of my seminary who claims to do his best evangelism in bars. His favorite line, he says, and you may have heard this one before—is what his says when people say to him, “I don’t believe in God.” He replies, “Tell me about this god that you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either.” He listens, then, if the time is right— “Let me tell you about the God I do believe in.”
Let’s face it, God gets a bad rap this days, especially in these parts. God has an image problem—an old white guy with a beard in the clouds problem—and titles like Lord and King don’t sound much like they would help. Yet, here we are at the Feast Day of Christ the King.
Like all metaphors for the divine, this one fall incomprehensibly short. And like most Biblical imagery for God, it also carries icky cultural connotations. No wonder some parishes have declared today Christ the Queen or Reign of Christ Sunday. Regardless of how we choose to approach the triune God today, as King or Queen or Sovereign, there is no denying there is something distastefully outdated about this feast day. I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you’d like to leave this Sunday, and all those imperialistic titles for Christ, back in 1925, the year Pope Pius XI first instituted this Feast Day.
There’s this thing about Advent, though. There’s something about this season, and the way time folds in on itself and past and present and future converge. When history reveals itself to be much more mysterious than the linear timeline we assume it to be.
Take 1925, the year of this feast day’s origin. This is the year turbulent waves of nationalism, fascism, and communism are propelling the most infamous dictators of the 20th century to power: Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and other kings, too: Ibn Saud of Arabia, Reza Shah of Persia. Across the globe, the French and British Empires brutally cling to their power over indigenous and colonized peoples. In the US, the racist Immigration Act barring immigration of Asian people to US has just been passed and our historically open borders have slammed shut. Striking Filipino workers in Hawaii have been massacred by sugar plantation owners backed by the US National Guard. Thirty thousand white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen march down the heart of our nation’s capital.
Kings and kingdoms we know all too well.
This is the context into which Pope Pius XI spoke. This is moment into which Christ’s sovereignty was radically proclaimed. In the face of all the horrors of imperialism and dictatorship and global domination, the church lifted up another way.
Tell me about the kings you know, broken and hurting world. And God listens.
And God says through the prophets of old, let me tell you about another kind of king. I myself am the shepherd, says the Lord, and I will gather up my people. I will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. And the fat and the strong, the Judean Kings who pushed and bullied their own subjects, who took advantage of every power and privilege they had for their own gain? I will take their place, and I will feed them with justice.
Oppressed people of faith have known the secret power of proclaiming God’s sovereignty for thousands of years. The exiled prophet Ezekiel exclaimed it in in the time of the Babylonian conquest. The early church whispered it in the catacombs and the American slaves sung it in code in the plantation fields.
When Yahweh is Lord, nothing else is. When Jesus is Master, no one else is. When God is truly sovereign, the lowly are lifted up and the mighty torn down from their thrones. In Jesus, death is killed by death. In this King of kings, Kingship itself is dismantled.
There’s this insidious myth in America that we’ve gotten rid of Kings and kingdoms, masters and Lords. But we haven’t, have we? We just call them by different names, usually ending in -ism.
And here’s the danger with pretending there are no more Kings. Oftentimes it means we allow things, and people, and systems to define our sense of self without admitting their power over us. Or worse, when we look around and see no oppressor, it may be because we are blind to the ways we have put ourselves–or sometimes even the Church itself–in the place of God.
Here’s an explicit example. I’ve seen it over and over in the sexual harassment scandals of the past two weeks. Powerful, successful men exposed for exploiting their coercive power over younger women, colleagues, and mentees—abusing power these kings prefer to pretend they did not have.
Yet, what we cannot name, we cannot bring into the light. This Sunday is the Sunday to tell about the Kings and kingdoms we know, but oftentimes choose not to see.
And God listens.
And God says through the Gospels, let me tell you about another kind of sovereign, unlike any you’ve ever known. A tiny, weak infant who came not to be served, but to serve. A healer who sought out the sinner and turned over the tables of the loan sharks and called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite. A king who laid down his life for his friends.
And here in the Gospel of Matthew, in this last parable before Jesus’ passion and death, Jesus tells us of the end of days, when the true sovereign will take the throne. Then the Child of Humankind will reveal where God has been all this time: among the lost and the least.
What’s most amazing to me in this passage is that even the righteous on Christ’s right hand are surprised to learn that the true kingdom has been breaking in, all this time. Christ’s kingdom is happening in the margins, even when, and perhaps especially when, we cannot see it.
For whenever love expands our hearts and service guides our hands, Christ’s kingdom is realized and the true king is served. For that moment, we can glimpse the new coming reality when the false kingdoms of this world that keep people hungry and thirsty and estranged and naked and sick and imprisoned will be overturned.
So this Advent, let us listen to those who tell us all about the kings and kingdoms of our own time. This Advent, let us proclaim the Sovereignty of subversive love that abolishes all earthly authorities. Let us celebrate the queen who even now is overturning and opening our hearts.