Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sermon: "An Unlikely King"

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Luke 23:33-43

“An Unlikely King”


This time of year we get to play around with the term “King.” This is Christ the King Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday if you want to throw out the problematic word altogether. Whether or not we can relate to the term “king,” or can relate to the notion of Christ being “King,” many of us are still vulnerable to the same notions of leadership that plagued the Israelites and the early church so long ago. Even after we have discarded monarchy, separated Church from State, and as Protestants rejected the notion of a Pope, we are still tempted to dream up the kind of savior-figure and authority that the new Messiah was supposed to be. We are still tempted to abdicate some of our responsibility and vision to human leaders, and we still fall prey to the desire for this leadership to vanquish our enemies. And so, at least once a year, we get to unpack this idea of kingship a bit.

I grew up with folk tales – and their subset fairy tales. Many of these stories, which we had bookshelves full of, wove their themes around the mainstays of goblins, witches, princes and princesses and of course, kingdoms. There were good kings, evil kings, weak kings and strong kings. But kings and their kingdoms were as much a part of the natural order in these stories as the sun coming up.

Perhaps you, like me, also grew up reading the Narnia Chronicles and bonded with the central character of Aslan. As a Christ figure, the lion Aslan is particularly appealing and accessible to the young mind. He is wise, benevolent and compassionate. He is mysterious, has special powers and demands faith from his followers. These are of course the elements of Jesus of Nazareth that many of us are drawn to. Yet Aslan, unlike the Christ we meet in the gospels, also has a daunting physical presence, and could, in fact vanquish his enemies with a swipe of one of his great paws.

It is cultural images such as these that can inform how we view not only leadership and ourselves, but the notion of savior. I wonder how many of us, like those contemporaries of Jesus who were expecting an Aslan-type figure to rescue them from their oppressors, still wish for the human or divine version of the benevolent dictator who will, if necessary, kick butt. I wonder how many of us, despite knowing better, give into the old notions of us and them, righteous and unrighteous, those worthy of salvation and protection and those who are not.


The Hebrew Scripture notion of the new Davidic king, which we hear in today’s reading, is of one who will restore justice and protection to Israel. “Israel will live in safety” we hear in the Jeremiah text. The Israelites “…will not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.” The longing is clear: Israel wants to return to a previous sense of security, a home pasture if you will, a return to justice, and to a leader who will hold them together against all enemies.

With this legacy of expectation, the early gospel writers faced a steep task in holding up Jesus of Nazareth as this very king. It was clear to them that the one who had been so long anticipated had finally come…but in the process had shattered the mold, or what they thought had been the mold. In all of Luke’s gospel, the only human to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, is Peter. So aware is Luke of the need to upset the old notions of the Messiah that he does not leave Jesus’ true identity up to human witnesses, but only supernatural entities and the resurrected Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus. Humans, with the one exception of Peter, cannot make room for a legitimate leader who submits himself so freely into the hands of the powerful. The jeers of the people, the soldiers, and the first criminal we meet in the Luke passage today call attention to the fact that indeed, as the kind of King prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus seems to be doing a really bad job.

In fact he is, but of course that is the point. Throughout the gospels Jesus has been upsetting traditional notions of Davidic kingship: at one point in Luke he even denies that the Messiah could even be a descendant from the House of David at all. Now, in his final chapter of life, Jesus makes sure we do not confuse previous notions of kingship and the new ones on at least two points. For one, he refuses to play favorites with those who have followed him, and extends the kingdom of God illogically to his executioners and a criminal hung at his side. After he has been stripped, beaten and hung on the cross, Jesus does not seek out those who have followed him and loved him for comfort, nor to deliver last minute words of assurance to them. He does not circle the wagon around the faithful and familiar, but seeks entrance to the kin-dom for those who are its true lost sheep.

Secondly, and more shockingly, Jesus overturns the previous notion of power and victory, and indeed safety. Instead of protecting Israel from its military enemies, Jesus has been dragged helplessly in front of the authorities, his crucifixion a ghastly reminder of how vulnerable all of his followers are. Jeremiah’s promise that “Israel will live in safety” could not appear further from the truth, and could not appear more bitterly ironic in these moments. Disturbingly, what Jesus presents as victory is not a vanquished enemy swept aside by the paw of some giant lion. It is a more profound and far more costly laying bare of the system’s moral bankruptcy as it forces the suppression of one group by another. Rather than protecting Israel under a canopy of military or worldly “safety,” Jesus offers the only real safety of the kingdom of God: God’s all-inclusive love that exposes exploitation and stands for justice. Based on moral authority and relationship, this is a new kind of kingship altogether, in fact, a kin-ship.


What Jesus turned upside down in his final moments of life we still struggle with today. Think about it: are we not still looking for our Davidic King? It is hard not to pin our deepest hopes and longings onto the leaders we send to represent us. Sure, we have a democratic system not a monarchy, but the ways in which we abdicate our own responsibility and attribute these leaders with power seem to suggest we are still a little hung up on old notions of savior-kings. How many of us elevated Obama to the status of savior? How many of us attributed this one person with the ability to overturn the wrongs of illegal war, poor health care, and political corruption? How many tears that were shed at his election and inauguration were tears for the reawakened dreams of MLK, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy? Whether or not the President has fallen down on his promises, whether he has squandered an opportunity that was truly held out to him, we have to face that what he represents for us is greater than any one person could fulfill.

Jesus’ message was essentially, we are all each other’s means of creating the Kin-dom of God here on earth right now. When its numbers have been humiliated, scattered and afraid, elements of the church have in fact done this for 2,000 years. We cannot wait for the power structures, which are too invested in the system the way it is, to do this for us. We cannot wait for an inspiring leader to hold out our vision for us. We are called, as unlikely kings, to turn to one another, pool our resources, and go out to serve our fellow humans preaching the Good News. We are called to toss out our pet vision of what a king and savior is supposed to be, and with the vision that Jesus has passed down to us, partner with God and with one another to do the work.

In this process, we must not narrow the Kin-dom of God only to those who are familiar, to those who have loved and supported us. When we are persecuted, we are not circle the wagon around ourselves and our loved ones only, but to extend radical love to those we sometimes do not even know, or those who are responsible for our pain. Truthfully, do we seek the kin-dom only in the company of and for the future of those who are like us: progressive, educated, comfortable? Would we include Tim Eyman or Sarah Palin amongst those we would ask forgiveness for, for they know not what they do? Or CEO Jeff Bezos of who poured money into the campaign to kill Initiative 1098? To those who are dividing up our clothes as we are being slowly drained of life? Jesus is asking this very question from the cross, as the Messiah-king: Will you give up your old notions of power and leadership and follow me? Will you do as I do?


So this Sunday we work to cleanse ourselves of “kingship” baggage. If we do call Christ a King, we need to remember that this king will not do the work for us but with us, did not come to make us safe, and did not come to “kick butt.” Christ’s “kingship” is, indeed, about kin-ship. A radical, inclusive love that leaves no one safe, but also no one unprotected by God, and no one excluded. It is a love that does not vanquish oppressors, but holds open the door for all, for redemption and salvation.

The bad news for us may be that Obama and the Democratic Party have not vanquished the enemy or overrun the opposition. The good news is that they have not vanquished the enemy and they have not overrun the opposition. We are one people, and rather than winning short term battles, our work is of wholesale conversion, and of a new orientation toward God. Let us lay down our swords of division and hero worship as each of us work toward this radical kin-dom of love and of God. Let us all be “unlikely kings.”


- S. F. Morse

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