November 21, 2021: Sermon Preached by Myma Koonce
Sermon November 21, 2021
In 2002, we were living in Wellington, New Zealand. One of the highlights for me was when Queen Elizabeth made her official visit. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised at the abundance of empty seats in the Wellington Cathedral: the very egalitarian Kiwis we knew were supremely uninterested in the woman who is their titular head of state. Not so for me! I watched with fascination as the Queen came up the aisle, her signature pocketbook on her arm. She was dressed simply as I recall it, in an elegant dress and low heels. No crown. No robe. I found myself pondering the vast political power that her position once wielded, and the fact that although she was now a figurehead, she still held sway in the hearts of many Britons and indeed many in the Commonwealth (the tepid New Zealand response notwithstanding). To fans of the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth has represented stability and endurance of tradition amid an array of societal changes and challenges.
There is no doubt that we ourselves are living in unsettled and unsettling times. A wily virus has persisted and disrupted our lives. A spirit of rebellion is on the rise among diverse people in diverse ways. Significant cracks are showing in our systems and our assumptions. The earth herself is reacting to our misuse of her precious resources. In my chaplaincy work at Maine Med, we are seeing increasing numbers of people who are not only acutely physically ill but spiritually sick, lost in depths of existential distress and despair.
It is human nature in times like this to long for someone to take control, to rule with a firm hand, to calm the waters and bring order and peace to our world. Someone strong and powerful. A king, perhaps, who can set things right and restore us to our previously comfortable and secure lives. Ideally, as David says, “one who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God.” There is a tendency to look outside ourselves for this kind of power and stabilizing force. Such an impulse is surely behind the current rise of autocrats around the world.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, a relatively recent addition to our church calendar, established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a way to counteract what he viewed as destructive trends and ideologies in the modern age—communism, fascism and secularism—by holding up Christ’s rule based in love and not violence as the alternative. The Episcopal Church dictionary says that this Sunday “celebrates Christ’s messianic kingship and sovereign rule over all creation.” Our worship, art and sacred music through the ages have embroidered this aspect of Jesus, using imagery derived from earthly kings, who wear robes and crowns, carry scepters, sit on thrones, and command legions.
But here’s the catch. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus refuses, or at the very least evades, the title of king, telling Pilate, “You say so.” He also states, both quite plainly and quite mysteriously, “My kingdom is not from this world.” When it comes right down to it, Jesus talks almost non-stop about the kingdom of God without ever naming himself as “the king.” A common theological interpretation of this puzzle is that Jesus knows God’s plan is not for him to be an earthly king, for as such, he would become limited and specific, rather than universally reaching and saving the whole world. Indeed, earlier in John, we are told that “Jesus, knowing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” (John 6:10-15) But more than avoidance of earthly politics is at work in this dialogue with Pilate. Jesus takes the focus off his identity and puts it on God’s kingdom when he says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Over and over, he is trying to get those around him, and us so many centuries later, to see the truth of what the kingdom of God really is, both here and now and in the age to come.
It is tempting to view God’s kingdom as a place of safety and security. But Jesus tells us his kingdom is not about amassing wealth and kicking back in luxury and comfort. It is not about marshalling greater armies than those of our perceived enemies, or building bigger walls or higher ramparts to protect ourselves and our possessions. Most importantly, the kingdom of God is not a static destination, a realm whose primary purpose is the exaltation of Jesus. In parable after parable, and analogy after analogy, Jesus preaches about how the kingdom of God will disrupt, not reinforce, the established order. The first will be last and the last will be first. Power dynamics will shift, and even the very notion of power itself will be transformed. Things will not be the same in any respect—all will be made new. Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that what we cling to must pass away in order that God’s kingdom may be fully realized. And he tells us the kingdom of God is not just some future occurrence but is also happening around us and between us right now, if we only had eyes to see.
Perhaps you may have encountered, as I have in ministry circles, an alternative word for kingdom—it is kin-dom. K-i-n-dash-d-o-m. I like the leveling note it strikes, the sense of common good and interconnection the word evokes, the call to mutual servanthood, healing and love. I believe it comes close to what Jesus is exhorting us to do and be through his life and his ministry, through the Way that he asks all of us to follow. But there is something about the word “kingdom” that carries a weight and power that “kin-dom” lacks. Because opening ourselves to Jesus does mean letting him inhabit and rule us. The throne of Jesus is in our hearts, and he rules from the inside out. And it is an exacting rule: Jesus tells us God’s kingdom is and will be both loving and fierce, filled with a light that not only warms and guides us but also illuminates uncomfortable and unpredictable truths.
We are called, all of us, to build this kingdom with Jesus. The kingdom is being woven, and rewoven every day, with every choice we make to be cruel or kind, to reach out or retreat, to share or hoard, to speak the truth or remain silent. This world is electric with unmaking, the veil is being pulled aside. Safety and security are not guaranteed and indeed at times may need to be sacrificed. But this is not cause for fear! Jesus tells us that the world’s unraveling is an occasion for deep hope and joy, a chance to open up and let the Spirit show us where and how to embrace the churning, the turning, the change. We are invited into God’s kingdom not simply to fill our hearts with love and bask in God’s light, but to engage God’s transformative work both in this present time, and in the life to come.
So let’s get to it!