(Note the intentional references at the end to Victoria’s “presence” and “being” and not anything about what she did. Note also that this is the first of my sermons in a long time not to include a long excursus on mission. It didn’t seem to fit and would have made an already long sermon too long.)
22 November 2009 – Christ the King Sunday
Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14
Revelation 1: 4b-8
John 18: 33-37
Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield, MA
Let us pray. Gracious Lord, show us the path to your kingdom in this world and the next. Amen.
I bet that if I ask you what a king is, we would all come up with a similar sort of picture. We might think about someone seated on a throne. We might think about crowns. Or the royal jewels. We can think about the power of kings to command people and order them to act in particular ways. Kings are often associated with battles and the military.
These ideas about kingship are echoed in the Old Testament readings this morning. The Psalm tells us the “Lord is king, robed in majesty… girded with strength.” Kingship is associated with strength and excellence. This is echoed in the beautiful vision set forth in the book of Daniel. God is described as seated high on a throne of fiery flames, with thousands upon thousands of people waiting in attendance upon him. The king is the center of attention.
It was these sorts of ideas that shaped the Jewish vision of what to expect when the Messiah came again. If God was all-powerful and mighty and could sit on a throne made out of fire, surely God’s Annointed One would be just as powerful and could rescue the Jews and restore the glory of their ancient kingdoms. This is certainly what is suggested by the second half of the vision in Daniel. “One like a human being” who rides on “the clouds of heaven” comes before God. With the benefit of hindsight, we identify this person as Christ. Christ is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away”. This is a sweeping and all-encompassing vision. ALL peoples, ALL nations, ALL languages will serve this Christ and his kingdom will not pass away. These Jewish communities had memories of the large kingdoms of people like David and Solomon. But those kingdoms didn’t rule over everyone in the world and eventually did pass away, as the Jews remembered all too well. This Messiah would be different.
I begin by talking about kings today because today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. On this day, we celebrate what is known as Christ the King today. It is the church holiday on which we celebrate Christ as king over all the world.
And when we think about Christ as king, we have to think about these Old Testament passages through the lens of the New Testament. When we do that, we know, of course, that the Jews were disappointed. The Messiah sent by God to establish a kingdom ended up as we read in this Gospel passage – a poor carpenter from a backwater village on trial in front of the Roman governor. Rome, the representation of all the known power on earth, is putting to death the one who was supposed to redeem the Jewish nation.
That very Messiah is engaging in a very un-royal and confusing conversation. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” You know that Jesus’ Apostles who are in the crowd are whispering under their breath, “Say yes, say yes!” That’s what kings are supposed to do. They are supposed to proudly proclaim their position. They’re supposed to put themselves at the center of attention.
Instead, Jesus answers not with a declaration but with a question of his own: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” You can see the Apostles looking at each other with puzzled looks on their face: “What does that have to do anything? Just proclaim your kingdom and smite this Pilate down and the chief priests with him.” Pilate answers, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus has a pretty good story to tell of things he’s done – healed the sick, reached out to the poor, feed thousands, walked on water. It’s time for him to brag, to talk about himself, to put himself at the center of attention. That’s what kings do.
Instead, he says, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate is confused: “So you ARE a king?” Jesus is still not being any clearer about things, even given this great opportunity to declare just who he is: “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” We know how this story ends. Jesus is on a cross within hours. So much for the kingdom of God. So much for the Messiah. Where is Christ the King now?
Let’s pause from that question for a moment and turn to another place. For the last two years, I was a missionary of the Episcopal Church in a town called Mthatha, in South Africa. Specifically, I worked in a neighbourhood of Mthatha called Itipini. Actually, to call Itipini a neighbourhood is going a bit too far. It’s a shantytown. The people there live in shacks made out of old car parts, pieces of tin, rocks, tarps, old trees, milk cartons, even the occasional beer bottle. The word Itipini means “at the dump” and that’s exactly where Itipini is. The community started on the municipal garbage dump so residents could scavenge off the garbage. The dump has since been moved but the community persists. Since there has been no reclamation work done, the place is still a dump with garbage everywhere.
I worked in a community center that was right in the middle of this shantytown. We had a pre-school, an after-school program, and a primary care clinic and worked with the residents of this community in a variety of ways. The clinic is particularly important because the health indicators of this community are some of the worst in the country. HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis are prevalent. Alcoholism and drug use are rife. There are a huge number of chronic conditions that go unaddressed by an overwhelmed health care system.
One day a young woman of about 23 staggered into the clinic. Her name was Zikhona. She was one of those people you could just look at and see she had AIDS. She was emaciated and very weak and needed to lean against a wall to stand up. She was clutching her small baby in her arms and the baby was in worse shape than his mother. He was dehydrated and barely breathing, gasping for each breath. It turned out that these were his last moments. In a few minutes this three-month old child had died in Zikhona’s arms. He could not be resuscitated. Zikhona had no energy to grieve. All of her energy was going towards keeping herself alive.
Zikhona had to go to the hospital. She needed care we couldn’t give her. She also had to begin a long process that would get her the anti-retroviral drugs that would combat her AIDS and help her prolong her life. A young friend of hers named Victoria offered to go along to keep her company and be her advocate in the hospital. I gave both of them a ride.
Zikhona stayed in the hospital that night and Victoria stayed with her. The next day, Victoria showed up by herself at our clinic. They had taken a taxi back from the hospital but the closet the taxis stopped was in a mall parking lot a mile away and Zikhona didn’t have the energy or ability to make that trip. She was just too sick.
So Victoria and I got in the car again and off we drove. It was an early summer day in mid-December and it was really hot. Victoria and I pulled into the mall parking lot and I began scanning the taxi rank for Zikhona. “No,” Victoria said, “over there” pointing away from the crowd of people waiting for taxis and across the parking lot to the far edge.
Now municipal services in Mthatha aren’t that great so garbage tends to collect in places, including at the edge of this parking lot. When we got over to the edge, we found Zikhona. She was lying in one of the piles of trash that had accumulated on the edge of the parking lot. Even though it was sweltering, she was shivering and wrapped up in a blanket they had taken to the hospital. On the edge of this big parking lot, there was one young woman dying on a trash pile. Victoria and I helped Zikhona stand up, put her in the car, and drove her back to the clinic.
Victoria continued to help care for Zikhona in the next few days and weeks. I gave them a few rides so that Zikhona could continue the process that would help her get on anti-retroviral drugs. We made sure Zikhona had food and was as comfortable as she could be when you live in a run-down shack with tin walls and a tarp full of holes for a roof. But we couldn’t snap our fingers and cure her AIDS. We could only alleviate her suffering in some kind of modest way. Let me say, it feels pretty helpless to know someone is so sick and be able to do so little for them to change their situation. And in any event, our efforts were too little, too late. Zikhona died not long after Victoria and I had picked her off the trash pile.
I knew many more people like Zikhona in my time in South Africa, people whose life had been lived entirely on the margins, people dying on the edges, people living lives where it was difficult to see the hope. Many of these people I knew died in similar circumstances. It’s hard to sit through a situation like this and not want to scream in frustration at God and ask the same question that Pilate asks Jesus. “Are you a king?” I want to yell. “Don’t you care? I’m helpless here and there’s a woman dying on a pile of garbage. Where is your fiery throne now? Where is your strength? Where is your majesty?” All Jesus says in response is, “I came into the world to testify to the truth.” It can seem like not a lot of comfort.
What is that truth that Jesus testifies too? Well, on one level it is fairly clear. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus has described himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus himself is the Truth. Through his life and ministry, he testifies that God loves the world so much that God chooses to share an existence with humans and live and die for us.
But there’s another kind of truth that Jesus acknowledges as well. That is the truth that the world is not perfect, that the world is full of people who don’t always do what God wants us to, that the world has a tendency to marginalize and oppress some of its weakest members. Jesus testifies to this truth simply by how he lives his life and how it stands in contrast to the usual stories of kings.
When you read the stories about kings, how many times do you usually hear about widows or orphans? How many times in the story of Pharaoh in the Old Testament does Pharaoh show the slightest bit of concern for anyone outside his family or court? The book of Kings in the Old Testament are stories of kings and their courts and almost never about the people outside those positions of privilege. The kingdom is all about how great the king is.
Now take a look at the history of Christ in the Gospels. It is full of stories about those on the fringes: widows, orphans, poor fishermen, reviled tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, beggars, the poor, the paralyzed, the sick, the kind of people who would die on piles of trash on the edges of parking lots. And Jesus’ royal court is not stuck in one place but always on the move, reaching out to new people.
Here is a new kind of kingdom. Contrary to the traditional stories of kings in which the king is the most important and the center of attention, Jesus turns that relationship around. It’s not just about who is king – it’s about who the subjects in that kingdom are. And those subjects are precisely the kind of people who are always on the fringes. So when a woman is dying on a trash pile in South Africa, Jesus is saying, “I am right next to you. You are welcome in my kingdom.”
Christ the King whom we celebrate today is king of those on the outside and the character of his kingdom is determined not just by the kind of king it has but by the kind of people who are part of that kingdom. The story doesn’t end there, however.
This morning’s reading from Revelation tells us there is one more part of that kingdom. Jesus “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” Let’s take that one at a time. Yes, Jesus loves us. Yes, Jesus freed us from our sins. Yes, Jesus made us – even us! – subjects in his kingdom. But what is this bit about “priests serving…God”? There are only a few priests in this church and they’re the ones who wear the robes and have the magic hands to celebrate the Eucharist.
A priest is the person who connects this sinful and fallen world with the divine and holy realm of God. The Latin word for priest means “bridge builder” and that’s what priests are supposed to do – bridge that gap between this world and that realm beyond us so that the two can come closer together. The people that we call priests do this in a variety of particular ways, in sermons that bring part of the knowledge of that holy realm into this world, in the sacraments that make the holy and the profane one, and in a pastoral ministry that embodies the love of Christ.
This passage from Revelation calls us priests in this broader sense. We who have knowledge of Christ and of Christ’s kingdom must be people who build bridges in this world. It is our calling to show forth the love of Christ to those around us and in so doing bring them closer to that divine and holy realm where God dwells. The kingdom of God includes people like you and me. But it also brings with it responsibilities. Our job is to perform that priestly function, to reach out and draw more people into that kingdom.
This idea can sometimes make Episcopalians a little wary. “What’s this?” I hear you say. “Drawing people into the kingdom of God? You’re not talking about some sort of…evangelism, are you?”
Let’s go back and think about Zikhona’s last weeks again because I want to tell you about the other figure in that story, Victoria, the young woman who cared for Zikhona. Victoria is 19 and the mother of a delightful and rambunctious 3-year old son. She’s also a full-time high-school student. She had four older siblings and three are now dead, two of AIDS and one in a horrible car crash. Her mother also has AIDS and for a while was very sick and near death herself before recovering with the help of these anti-retroviral drugs. Victoria’s mother is so happy to be recovered that she spends most of her days drinking and doing little to support the family. Victoria has a lot on her plate – more than I can ever imagine – and like many people in Itipini she has to do an incredible amount of work just to ensure her daily survival. But it was she who volunteered to help Zikhona. It was she who came to get me when Zikhona was lying on a pile of garbage. It was she who leaned over and picked Zikhona off that garbage pile and put her in the car. It was she who tended to Zikhona in her shack while Zikhona’s condition worsened.
By doing all of this, Victoria was narrowing the distance between the holy and fallen. By reaching out and drawing Zikhona in, she brought together God who sits on the fiery throne in heaven and Zikhona dying on garbage pile on the edge of the parking lot. By her actions, Victoria was saying to Zikhona, “You are a subject in the kingdom of heaven. Christ is here with you.”
There’s a kind of paradox here. The kingdom that Christ proclaims is not of this world. It is a kingdom where we live in right and just and good and true relationships with each other and with God. That kingdom will never come to pass in our own time. Its perfect peace is beyond the grasp of this fallen creation.
And yet that kingdom is with us right now. It is with us right now because Christ came to earth and lived among us and taught us exactly how we must be as subjects in his kingdom. We must be the priests that narrow that divide and draw the holy and the sinful together.
The kingdom of God is beyond us. We will never attain it. And yet we are called to live as if it is here among us right now. That is the truth that Jesus was proclaiming before Pilate and it is that truth that must guide us now. It is the truth that Victoria recognized when she was such a valuable presence in Zikhona’s life in those last few weeks of that tragic life. And it is that truth to which we are surely being called on this day and every day.