A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
November 22, 2015
Christ the King Sunday
This is a sermon about power, who has it, who doesn’t, and its relationship to Truth.
It is the last Sunday of the church year, as well as the feast of Christ the King, a day instituted in 1925 by Pope Pious XI at a time when non-Christian dictatorships were increasing in Europe and respect for the church was waning. By instituting this day, the Pope hoped “That the faithful would gain strength and courage … as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies.”
That’s the official word, at least from 90 years ago.
For me, celebrating Christ the King is troubling on many levels, but the fact is that the language of kingship is deeply embedded in our Scriptural story because let’s face it: there were no democracies that we know of in ancient times.
The idea of kings and kingdoms is remote in most parts of the world today. The idea that you come to power by birth and this power is automatically passed on to your children is especially hard to grasp in a country like ours, which was founded to get away from kings. Granted the Brits still have their quaint but virtually powerless monarchy as do some of the Scandinavian and Middle Eastern countries, but our world today is caught in struggles for power and domination that have little to do with royalty.
Jesus never wanted to be called a king! Kings and emperors and power brokers were for the Romans; Jesus embodied humility and proclaimed a new kind of authority. This is clearest on Palm Sunday when there were two processions entering Jerusalem, one a military parade for Pontius Pilate with all the pomp and ceremony befitting a king and on the other side of the city, a ragtag but carefully-arranged procession with Jesus on a donkey. The point couldn’t be clearer.
Power is different from authority. Authority used to be freely granted to the government, the church, and the male head of the household. But this has changed. Columnist David Brooks says that we have gone beyond the ”Question Authority” bumper stickers of the 70’s to opposing authority with “mass adversarial cynicism. Movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party try to dispense with authority altogether,” he says, “seeming to believe that the whole world should be like the Internet—a disbursed semi-anarchy in which authority is suspect and the individual is king.”
We find ourselves today on the last day of the church year with Jesus who is very near the end of his earthy life. He is at his “trial” as Pilate interrogates him.
Pilate would have no interest at all in this itinerant rabbi if he wasn’t afraid that the popularity Jesus was gaining could threaten his own authority and the Roman emperor he served. Like today, it may not be power that corrupts but fear of losing power that does the damage.
So the main line of questioning for an obviously-frustrated Pilate is if Jesus considers himself a king. Yes of no. Jesus plays some word games with Pilate and then says that his kingdom is not from this world and that his authority is that he speaks the truth. Ultimately, Pilate finds no fault with Jesus but still hands him over when the crowd’s demands and growing power become too much for him to deal with.
The kinds of authority are crystal clear in this lesson. Pilate with his considerable military and physical power given him as an agent of the mighty Roman Empire, and Jesus whose power is an idea: the idea that truth is the ultimate authority and that truth is from God.
Barbara Brown Taylor notes “Jesus is not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force if necessary to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own.”
Another take on the trail of Christ is from the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky. In his epic tale The Brothers Karamazov one of the chapters is called “The Grand Inquisitor.”
In the story, Christ comes back to Earth in Spain at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned to death the next day.
The Grand Inquisitor is an old man, a cardinal of the corrupt Catholic Church, who visits Jesus in his cell and questions him at length, faulting Jesus for thinking that people can be trusted with free will and also for not succumbing to the Devil’s temptations so as to be a more effective ruler.
Jesus says nothing, but remains silent through it all. At the end of the interrogation, Jesus gives his only response, his final answer. He approaches the Inquisitor and kisses him on his “bloodless aged lips”. Completely unnerved by this, the Inquisitor sends him away, out into the night.
What about the kiss? Does it identify the Inquisitor to God, as Judas kissed Jesus in the Garden to identify him to the authorities? Is it a blessing? An act of forgiveness? One person writes, “The kiss cannot overcome logical argument but at the same time there is no logical argument that can overcome the kiss. It represents the triumph of love and faith, on their own terms over rational skepticism. “
In the past week terror has again moved center stage in our world, not only in Paris but also for those suffering atrocities in Mali, Palestine/Israel, in Central Africa, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar, in inner-city America. The sound of heartbreak is deafening.
In considering the responses to such attacks, President Obama said this, “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism. It is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.”
True, but in the long run is the Truth more than force, human imperfection, and reasonable thought?
According to John, Jesus died because he told the truth to everyone he met. What truth would he speak to us at this time in history? To the world? To ISIS? What would he say to you on this precious day of your life? What about your life might you be asked to change? To let go of? To embrace? We will know it is Truth speaking if it h calls us out of our smallness and our fear.
This is a story from this week, posted on the Internet yesterday by the writer Naomi Shabi Nye, daughter of a Palestinian mother and an American father:
“After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.
Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly in Arabic. The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used— she stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him. We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.
This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then.
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost. ”
Christianity is nothing if not realistic. Human suffering has always been a given, and if we have been lucky enough to avoid it we haven’t been paying attention to what is around us. You cannot understand the faith without paying attention to the Cross — what caused it, what follows it. The incarnation of God in Jesus says that ultimately suffering will be overcome and it our ministry to make it so. Says the poet Hazrat Khan, “God allows our heart to break again and again and again until it stays open.”
The Truth spoken by Jesus that left everyone without much of a comeback is the power of love. If not love, well then, kindness. Cookies. To be lived out day-by-day, moment by precious moment.
This is power.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Perfect Mirror,” Religion Online, 2014
David Brooks, “The Follower Problem,” New York Times, June 11, 2012
Parker Palmer, On Being, “Three Questions About Suffering,” Nov. 18, 2015
“Bedtime Story,” Naomi Shabi Nye, Internet post