A sermon by the Rev. Anne Derse, originally preached on November 24, 2019
Good morning – welcome to St. John’s! Today is Christ the King Sunday, the very last Sunday of our church year before Advent begins next week. It’s a moment of transition, an opportunity for reflection; reflection on what’s past as we anticipate what’s ahead, for the season of preparation and fulfillment, of peace and light and hope and joy: Advent and Christmas.
And I don’t know about you, but I really need a moment of peace and hope and light just now. These last few weeks have been particularly difficult for me; maybe for you, too. I’m speaking, of course, of the continuing turmoil in our national life.
As many of you know, before I became a deacon, I was a diplomat, a Foreign Service officer. I served here and overseas for more than thirty years. And in all those years of service, I never imagined that I would one day see friends and colleagues who I know and have worked with attacked and threatened on the news and social media, and by members of our own government – simply for doing their jobs. Many of the people you’ve seen on television these past few weeks are people I know personally to be of the highest integrity and professionalism, men and women who have devoted their lives to public service. And yet, they’ve had their loyalty impugned, their motives questioned, their reputations smeared, and their lives and careers upended. It’s shocking. And it’s wrong.
And this, of course, isn’t happening in a void. Rather, it follows many months of other dehumanizing assaults, assaults in word and policy – on our Muslim and Latino neighbors, on immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, on the disabled, on women. And assaults, shamefully, on the “least of these” – on children, the hungry, the poor, the sick.
This has all been hard for me to stomach as a former diplomat and as a citizen, but I have found it especially hard to grapple with as a Christian.
Where, I find myself wondering, is God in all this? What does my faith mean, in times like these? What would Jesus would think, and what Jesus would expect me to do?
I have been struggling with these questions for many months now. I suspect many of you have been struggling, too. I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do have some thoughts that I’ll be pondering during Advent, thoughts that I offer you to consider, too, as we prepare for Christmas this year.
To me, our national life seems to have come completely unhinged – unhinged from the most basic tenets of our faith. So many things are occurring that are antithetical to what we believe as followers of Christ. Times like these, I believe, call us to go back to the very basics. To the very fundamentals of our faith.
First of all, we must return to the core affirmation that has shaped Christian understanding from the time of the first Christians until today. And that core affirmation is, that “Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is Lord. As we celebrate this today – Christ is King.
Make no mistake – maybe this statement doesn’t ring with quite the same meaning and impact that it had when proclaimed by the earliest Christians in first century Palestine. But this statement that “Jesus is Lord” is a radical statement. The ancient language we use obscures some of its power. Speaking of lords and kings and kingdoms today smacks more of the Game of Thrones or of Downton Abbey than it does of twenty-first century reality.
But as theologian Marcus Borg reminds us, when the first Christians declared that Jesus is Lord, it was radical – because they lived in a world where the imperial rulers, the Roman Caesars, called themselves lord, and king, even god and son of god and savior. And the early Christians lived in real kingdoms, where they felt the power of lords and kings – where they were oppressed and exploited under kings and lords like Herod and Caesar. So when the early Christians declared “Jesus is Lord” they were saying, very clearly, that Herod and Caesar were not. They were saying very clearly that they owed ultimate allegiance to no one other than to Jesus. It was a statement that was threatening to leaders jealous of their power and privilege in their earthly kingdoms. And they killed Jesus for it, as we heard in the Gospel today.
Borg suggests we can better feel the power of the statement “Jesus is Lord” if we put it in modern terms, terms that resonate in our political culture. If we declare that Jesus is our “commander-in-chief” – the only power to whom we, as Christians, owe ultimate allegiance.
Second, we know that with Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, the kingdom of God broke into our world in the most concrete way possible. God became human, like us, in Jesus. He walked the earth. He left footprints in the sand.
But we also know that the kingdom of God bears no resemblance to any earthly kingdom. That the kingdom of God, as Sari described it in a great sermon about this time last year, is “an upside-down kingdom, the polar opposite of what we consider the conventional methods of power and influence in our world. A kingdom in which we give, not take; in which we serve, not dominate; in which we offer forgiveness, not revenge; love, not hate; embrace, not exclusion; and life, not death. This is God’s kingdom.”
And third, we know what Jesus teaches us. Jesus shows us, clearly and simply, in his words and in the example of his life, what God’s kingdom is and what that means for us as disciples of Christ. We know what Jesus taught: that every human being is created in the image of God and must be respected as such. And the Great Command, the Golden Rule, to love your neighbor as yourself. In case there is any question, Jesus clarified for us, with stories like that of the Good Samaritan, that our neighbor is indeed the “other” – the people most different from us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that in the kingdom of God, we obey not just the letter of God’s law – not just, for example, not to murder – but that we must change our very hearts and live the spirit of the law, too. We must eradicate anger and hatred, the precursors of murder, from our hearts.
In Matthew 25, Jesus taught that in caring for the least of these – the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the oppressed, anyone who is marginalized or vulnerable – we are caring for Jesus himself. And, throughout Scripture, in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, we hear repeatedly that we must always, always, welcome the stranger.
Oh, yes., we know what Jesus taught. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, it’s simple – it’s simple, but it’s not easy.
With Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, God and the kingdom of God has indeed broken into our world, but it is very clearly not established here yet. We live in a kind of limbo, a sort of tension, a period of “already-not yet.” The Kingdom of God has indeed already arrived in our world, but it is not fully realized yet, nor will it be until Jesus returns. Spiritual warfare, the fundamental struggle between good and evil, angels and demons, is not some quaint antiquated notion. It surrounds us daily. And sometimes, it seems, evil has the upper hand.
This, for me, is such a moment. How are we to react?
It is a time when we must go back to these very basics of our faith, and remind ourselves, as Christians, just who is in charge here, and what is required of us as disciples. Not to get lost in the noise and the tweets, the obfuscation and confusion, the threats and meanness and divisiveness that characterize our secular kingdom today. Jesus is Lord. We know what is right and what is wrong. Jesus shows us. And we know, as followers of Jesus, what he asks us to do.
God is right here. In each one of us, and in us collectively as a community of faith. We are God’s eyes and ears, and hands and feet and heart and voice in this world. God acts in our world and in human history through us. And Jesus asks us to be partners in creating God’s kingdom on earth – his partners in bringing light and hope, compassion, justice and peace to our world.
So as followers of Christ, we cannot remain silent, and we cannot stand by when we see wrong in our world. We must speak up and we must act – always with love, always in peace, always with a view to reconcile, with a view to repair, not to deepen, the breach. But we must respond. Each one of us must decide how, according to our gifts.
Our Adult Forum speaker last week, theologian and commentator on faith and public life, Jim Wallis, says that Advent is his favorite liturgical season, because it demands this of Christians: that we do the work of preparing our hearts for what it means that God came and lived as one of us in a world that needed and still desperately needs to be changed. It is deeply important, Wallis says, that we understand the radical meaning of Jesus’ birth as an event destined to radically transform the earth with the kingdom of God; that from the very beginning, when Jesus launched his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, the promise of good news for the poor and liberation for the oppressed defined the Incarnation – why God came to earth. This message turned society and the world upside down then, as it does today.
This is a time when we must go back to the basics of our faith. Jesus is Lord. “He himself is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.” And Jesus invites us to join him in creating God’s kingdom on earth. From these convictions, we draw courage and strength to stand up, speak out and put our faith concretely into action.