The Rev. Michael Ramsey-Musolf delivered this sermon at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, Sunday, November 25, 2012. It is passed on with his permission.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. Now, I don’t know about you, but for me the notion of Jesus as a monarch needs some “up-dating”.
For one, the whole institution of a monarch as the focal point of a society seems just a bit passé. When I think of a king or queen, the first person that comes to mind is Elizabeth II. Granted, she is probably the most popular political figure just about anywhere in the world, but somehow I don’t think her role as a benevolent, parent-like figurehead fits with how we think about Jesus. Nor do I think that her 16th century predecessor, Elizabeth I – perhaps one of the most powerful women in human history who very shrewdly used her sexuality to maintain authority in an otherwise male-dominated political society – encapsulates the notion of Christ as King either.
Does Jesus resemble any other kings from the past? How about Louis XIV of France, the so-called “Sun-King”. Many years ago I visited Versailles, his not-so-modest “home” outside of Paris, and I was astounded by the signs of wealth and power dripping from its walls. The same could be said about the imposing and impressive Hapsburg palace in Vienna, built from the wealth born of this royal family’s conquests of much of Europe.
Is this how we should think of Christ the King? Apparently, some of our brethren (and I do mean only one gender here) in the Roman Catholic tradition have this interpretation. You only need to walk through the halls of the Vatican with its gold, tapestries, and neoclassical art and notice the resemblance with the interior of Versailles to reach this conclusion.
OK, so if not Louis and the Hapsburgs, how about Charlemagne – the first anointed “Emperor” of the Holy Roman Empire in the Medieval era who very effectively “evangelized” his ever growing realm through military means. Or for that matter, we could try the various popes and minor rulers who lead the Crusades against the Muslims in the 11th-13th centuries. Is that how the refrain from the hymn “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war” is encouraging us to think of Christ the King?
It seems to me that none of this works very well when it comes to Jesus, so I’ve been wracking my brain these last days to come up with an alternative – one that is more fitting for 21st century Christians in the middle of America. Here’s what I’ve tried so far:
Christ the CEO: Since it’s all about the economy these days, why not a metaphor that epitomizes the height of economic success. Unfortunately, when I tried this one I just could not get around the notion of Jeffrey Skilling, head of Enron during its “death star” days or the more recent discussion of Bain Capital. Really, I don’t want to even go there.
Christ the Five Star General: Granted a bit militaristic, but we are accustomed to holding our military leaders in particularly high regard (think of Colin Powell). However, we have the little problem of a recently resigned director of the CIA to contend with…
Christ the Champion: Great. Works very well in Wisconsin, I think. Before he abandoned the Packers, Brett “Gunslinger” Favre was the closest this state has come to having a patron saint. So why not kick it up a notch and celebrate Christ the Champion one Sunday a year? We’d have to try and forget about Lance Armstrong…but perhaps a challenge like this can be overcome.
OK so I’m not doing so well. In one last try, I reached for a figure who is quintessentially American, who doesn’t come with some form of baggage, who calls us to be our better selves or at least makes is feel better about how we are, yet can also challenge us to look beyond our current preset notions. And I think I found the answer:
Christ the Talk Show Host: Think Oprah. Think Letterman and Leno. Think Conan, Ellen, or Jon Stewart. Though I would have gone with Oprah as my personal favorite, we should probably stick with Ellen, who rates number one in impact according to the blog “Klout.com”. Is anyone here with me on this one?
Well, it appears that I have not come up with a universally acceptable, viable alternative. So we are more or less stuck with “Christ the King”. What to do?
Perhaps, we should start by thinking about what it meant to call Jesus King of the Jews as we read in today’s Gospel and what it meant for Jesus to admit that yes, he was a king, but that his “kingdom is not of this world”?
To set the stage, imagine the ancient Palestinian world as being somewhat akin to the modern-day Middle East. You know the saying: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Like today’s Middle East, the ancient near east was characterized by political domination maintained by iron-clad military rule, periodic revolts by minority factions, sectarian violence, and the near-complete absence of anything resembling self-determination. If we wanted a modern-day setting for the Incarnation, Bethlehem might do just as well as it did when Jesus was born. But so might Ramallah on the West Bank, Gaza City, or even Aleppo in Syria. Change the names of the players – trading Herod, Pilate, and Augustus for Meshal, Netanyahu, or Assad – and update the tools of violence, and you’d have to conclude there are more than a few similarities.
Imagine, then, the entry into the present-day Middle East of a religious figure hailed by some of the populace as a new king, and try to visualize what the response might be by various parties. How would folks in the West Bank respond to this “King of the Jews”? How would this figure fare with Likud or Hamas? What message, what new political-religious-economic reality would he be trying to establish? Yes, his kingdom would most certainly NOT be of this world of violence, domination, mutual fear, oppression, assassination, AK 47’s, and the like. But what is it – this kingdom, and who is this “King”?
In reflecting on Jesus Christ the King, I have been re-reading small parts of a book I read in seminary called “Jesus and the Spiral of Violence”. In a sense, the title itself already says it all when we try to conceive of what Christ the King truly means. But let me try to break it all down for you a bit more explicitly.
First of all, the meaning of violence is not simply that of military or police actions, armed rebellion, or murder and assassination. It’s much broader, having political, economic, social, religious, and cultural dimensions.
The way I think of it is like a vice. Imagine that the ordinary folks in ancient Palestine – mostly peasant farmers – were like a piece of material squeezed between two plates of a vice. One plate was the Roman government (Herod, Pilate, Augustus) who required that the locals pay a tax called “tribute” to help fund imperial projects that were designed largely for the benefit of the upper classes.
The other plate was the Jewish religious aristocracy (Pharisees, Sadducees) who maintained their security by doing the bidding of the Roman government and keeping the local populace under control. They also exacted a tax, called the “temple tax”, to help fund the operations of the Jerusalem temple and the bureaucracy associated with it.
Over time, the squeeze of the two taxes – the two plates of the vice – became increasingly intense, putting more and more economic pressure on the famers. It became more difficult for them to afford the basics to maintain their way of life (things like seed or animals for farming). Some went into debts that they could not repay. Others lost the lease on their land. Still others became indentured servants, or slaves.
Imagine the stress and the impact this tighter and tighter squeeze of the vice exerted. Imagine the impact on family life and marriages. Imagine the toll it took on self-esteem, the feelings of increasing helplessness because there was no political process through which to change the situation. Imagine the growing sense of anger, the breakdown of normal life in the village, the effect on community and friendships. Not even Jewish religious life was untouched, as the Roman government required daily sacrifice to the emperor in the temple.
This squeezing economic, political, social, cultural, and religions vice is the spiral of violence, and its outward manifestation -- armed rebellions and the repressive responses of the authorities – was like the periodic eruptions of a volcano that results from growing pressure of a cauldron that can no longer be contained by a mountain’s walls.
And so into the middle of this spiral comes Jesus, King of the Jews who announces the arrival of a new realm, who preaches that the people in the middle of the two plates of the vice are blessed, and who tells them to pray to their Father in Heaven, Abba, daddy for relief:
Give us today our daily bread, since we don’t know if we will have the means to afford it.
Forgive us our debts before our debtors separate us from our spouses and children and force us into slavery.
Save us from the time of trial, from this spiral of violence, from this pressure we cannot escape.
Because we need you as our king. Because we want your will to be done. And because only your power can save us.
Hail Jesus, King of the Jews. Christ the King.
My friends, as you and I consider the world about us; as we think about the situation in our country, in our state, here in Dane county, in our communities and workplaces: where do we see or experience the spiral of violence, the squeezing plates of various vices that – to quote our baptismal covenant – corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Where can we, as followers of Christ the King, confront those dehumanizing economic, political, social, cultural and – yes – religious structures and announce a new realm of justice and wholeness for all?
Where can we, following in the footsteps of Jesus before Pilate and the angry mobs, witness to a kingdom that is truly not of this world and put ourselves, perhaps, a bit more on the line to make it a reality?
Christ the King calls us to this ministry. Let us pray for the grace, the courage, and the determination to answer faithfully the King’s call.