Sermon: November 20 2016 (Christ the King)

This sermon was delivered at Queen’s College, Oxford for evensong.

1 Sam 8.4-20
John 18.33-37
It’s been a rough year. Remember when the most heartbreaking thing about 2016 were the deaths of beloved celebrities?

And then Brexit happened. Look, I don’t care how you voted, and how you justified it to yourself to help you sleep at night, but that referendum dug up some proper ugliness in this country. The campaign disregarded facts, and exploited the insecurities of the economically marginalised in an effort to scapegoat people who looked and sounded different from the nostalgic visage of old Britannia. The aftermath included a burst of hate crime, against ethnic and religious minorities; it did not include more funding to the NHS.

Sovereignty!, we demanded. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that life got a whole lot worse for immigrants and ethnic minorities over here. It’s hard not to take that personally.

And then Trump happened. And that was much worse.

Freedom!, our American cousins are wont to cry. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that the Ku Klux Klan are celebrating over there, and diverse groups of people—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ folk—are being intimidated, harassed, and even assaulted. Far from being the promised champion of the working class, Donald Trump has now populated his transition team with corporate consultants and lobbyists. If the swamp has been drained, it is being refilled with orange Kool-Aid.

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Christians almost invariably say insipid things about politics. The sovereignty of God, for example, is often used as a means to justify the current regime. Vox Populi, vox Dei, and therefore Donald J. Trump is God’s chosen, who works in mysterious ways. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, we say, as a convenient means to disengage from political action. But such sloganising—such memefication—is tantamount to the abuse of theological language. Make no mistake: there can be nothing Christian about casual and convenient complicity with bigotry and bullying.

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The Bible is iffy on the relationship between Church and State.

The First Book of Samuel narrates Yahweh’s—or, should we say, Samuel’s—displeasure at the shift from theocracy to monarchy. But it is not as though Israel became a secular state. Samuel is told to listen to the people…but also to tell them what they want. Samuel: the Steve Jobs of ancient Israelite realpolitik.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jesus, a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine: he couldn’t be further from the centre of political power than Samuel was at its heart. There was no king but Caesar, and his vassals, including Herod’s family, who reigned over Judea at the pleasure of his majesty the Emperor.

Are you the King of the Jews? There was, of course, no such thing at the time. Herod the Great, to whom the title once belonged, was long dead, and his jurisdiction split among his male offspring: no surprises there. It was, in that sense, a trick question.

My kingdom is not from this world. There it is: the prooftext of Christian political apathy, which is really not so different from hipster cynicism. We are above the fray, too cool to believe that government can ever be anything but a stumbling block to be overcome by clicking things, or whatever people do these days.

And yet: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

With that, Jesus seems to come back to Samuel’s position. This political criminal, with the nerve to claim that—unlike the Herodians whose titles even required the Caesarian stamp of approval—the Christ’s kingship is his birthright, is truth itself, and we had better heed his voice.

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The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. That’s what this feast day is called, just in case we had any doubts about the scope of our moral and political concerns. You would be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the Church is only interested in where one puts one’s genitals, given her well-publicised obsessions.

This is not to say that the Church should be the Labour-Party-at-Prayer. The sovereignty of Christ relativizes all our group alignments, whether to political party or nation-state or ethnic group, or even family. We are first members of Christ’s body, who was crucified and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And, even as the Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s year, Christ is our end, our goal, our bottom line; there can be no other. Therefore, Christian political action cannot be a means to any other end, least of all grasping for political power for ourselves. Rather, if Christ is our goal, then our political action—our voting, our campaigning, our protesting—must embody Christ, whose mission was to the poor and marginalised and oppressed, who gave himself up for their sake.

If Christ is King, we cannot vote to prosper ourselves at the expense of the poor and needy, either here or abroad.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to take the lives of anonymous others far, far away, just to make us feel safe.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to restore some imagined past, excluding those who fail to look or sound like us.
If Christ is King, we must stand with and for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, long before we fight for ourselves.

There will, of course, never be a political candidate or party or platform that is unequivocally good. After all, we are none of us unequivocally good. Christians make the mistake of thinking that our moral choices are between right or wrong, when they are in fact mostly damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decisions. And yet, moral disengagement is not an option for us who are in the world, even though our kingdom is not from it. We are not called to be above the fray, but to be mired in the clay, to be an infant in a manger, a voice in the wilderness, leaven pervading bread, beaten and bloodied on a cross.

I make no apology to the 81% of white evangelical voters (58% of Protestants more generally and 52% of Catholics) when I say that Hillary Clinton was far and away my preferred candidate, for all the reasons I have stated, and that support for Donald Trump is unconscionable for Christians. But even had Clinton won, the Church would still have work to do, leaning, pushing against her government’s warmongering, delegating of power to corporate interests, and dilly-dallying over environmental protection.

But the next leader of the so-called free world is a buffoon who, regardless of his own views, demonstrably inspires hateful people and hateful actions. A lot of people are scared right now, and I don’t blame them. The UK and US is an increasingly hostile place for immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ persons. Economic disparities are ever widening here at home and elsewhere. There are a lot of vulnerable people. If Christ is our King, then our concern for the people he loves must not remain at the level of pious platitudes. Go, as we say at the end of every Mass; go in peace and love. There’s work to be done.

Sermon: November 23rd 2014

Readings

Matthew 25:31-46

1 Cor 15:20-28

Ezekiel 34:11-17

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in their own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father.  Words from St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems like ages ago, the solemnities of last Lent leading into the rapturous joys of Eastertide. Our memories of those powerful liturgies on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Paschal Vigil are inevitably dimmed behind the shrouds of Ordinary Time, behind the busynesses of our ordinary lives.

Here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems that we can already see and hear and smell Christmas. Or, perhaps, cheap imitations and commercial appropriations of the holy season. Between the soaring gravity of Remembrance Sunday and the building haze of cheap tinsel and kitsch yuletide pop music, it is all too easy to skip Advent altogether, to miss the company of the holy family, waiting, peaceful and strong.

All things considered, the Feast of Christ the King is well-placed, at this otherwise forgettable end of the Church’s year. It serves us well as a timely reminder of our primary allegiances, as easily distracted as we are by the other ways we mark our time: the ends of financial years and election cycles, the ends of school terms and sports seasons.

The Feast of Christ the King is well-placed—with Christmas before us and Holy Week behind us—between birth and death, life and new life. Here and now, we are reminded that Christ, whose undignified beginning is matched only by his shameful end, (Christ) is in the midst of us and at the heart of all things, is our source and our beginning, is our end and our destination.

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As, in their great wisdom, the putters-together of the lectionary make clear, the Feast of Christ the King is, among other things, an occasion to reflect on the nature of power, and God’s and our relationship to power.

St. Matthew’s vision puts our treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—that is, the powerless—at the centre of Christ’s judgement between the righteous and the condemned. This text is a riff on Ezekiel’s depiction of the Lord who, while seeking the lost and bringing them home, while tending to the weak and injured, also promises to obliterate those who unjustly enjoy abundance and strength. St. Paul’s rhetoric is even more blunt: he tells it to us straight, that Christ will come and destroy every rule and authority and power, especially death.

All of which is to remind us that our confession of Christ as King is not the endorsement of the kinds of activities we typically associate with sovereignty, not a sort of religious jingoism that revels in strength and abundance, power and authority. Christ’s power is not Caesar’s power, not Pilate’s power, not Herod’s power, not even Caiaphas the high priest’s power, which is ultimately the power of death, the power to execute dissidents and rabble-rousers and blasphemers. To the contrary, to confess that Christ is King is to abandon our pathetic quests for these pale facsimiles of power, whether physical or psychological, personal or political. Or at least to recognise their insignificance, and potential for abuse and corruption.

To be confronted by Christ the King is to have our group identities, from which we typically derive such power, relativized, lest they collapse into idolatry. Our churchmanships and nationalisms alike, our political partisanships and brand loyalties alike; we are—before the throne of the Son of Man’s glory, that is the shadow of his cross—jolted out of the lulls of our mistaken identities as cogs in the machines of machiavellian politicians and the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

On this the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (as it is officially called), we must be clear that this Christ the King of the Universe is the same “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” who conquers, not by taking up arms, but by having his arms bound to planks in blood and iron and rust; this too is an indictment of power as practiced in political playgrounds wherever they have been poisoned by humanity’s most pitiable weaknesses, anxieties, and insecurities. Hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound, this King dies for his people to defeat death, the fear of which drives so much of our futile quests for self-assertive power.

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Therefore:

If Christ is our King, then our lives must look very different than if we were instead governed by some other set of allegiances.

If Christ is our King, then Pilate is not, he for whom violent force is the price of some cheap imitation of peace.

If Christ is our King, then Caiaphas is not, he who applied the utilitarian calculus, and concluded that it is good for one man to die for the sake of his national security.

If Christ is our King, then Caesar is not, nor are the coins that bear his image. Neither governmental stability nor financial freedom feature in the eschatological hopes of the faithful. Which is not to say that politics and economics are irrelevant. On the contrary, it is to affirm the centrality of Christ—and thus of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—in our political and economic lives, and to marginalize the interests of lobbyists and marketeers.

If Christ is our King, then our loyalties can be taken for granted by no one: neither Visa nor Mastercard, neither Oxford nor Cambridge, neither Arsenal nor Liverpool, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party. The Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category; neither a fan club nor an old boys’ club. It is the risen body of the crucified criminal who is, at the same time, the King who ever arrives to defeat darkness and death, who will seek the lost and bring them home, who will feed us justice and peace. The Church is—we are—by the grace of God, the body of Christ the King, taken and broken and blessed and given to the world. We had better behave like it.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: November 24th 2013

Christ the King (All Saints’, Dunedin)

 Readings

Jeremiah 23:1—6

Luke 1:68—69

Colossians 1:11—20

Luke 23:33—43

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Words from the Song of Zechariah, in the Gospel according to St. Luke.

In the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.  </p

In the end, Christ.

We have arrived at the end of the Church’s year. It seems so long ago, the solemnities of Lent, culminating in the celebrations of Easter. Our memories of those powerful liturgies on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and the Great Paschal Vigil are inevitably dimmed behind the shrouds of Ordinary Time, behind the busynesses of our ordinary lives.

We have arrived the end of the Church’s year, and from here we can already see and hear and smell Christmas. Or, perhaps, pale imitations and commercial appropriations of this holy season, itself once-upon-a-time an appropriation of something else. It is easy to miss the peaceful strength of the Lady and her child amidst the haze of cheap tinsel and kitsch yuletide pop music.

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It is good to be back, if only for a short while. I cannot say how much I have missed this place, you people. It has, however, been a rich and important experience for me, to go away with this faith that you have helped to grow in me, to see how it fares in another place, among another people. The Church of England is a funny old thing, with its establishment as the state religion and its insecurities in the global Anglican Communion, not to mention its hang-ups about women bishops and other such issues. The most salient oddity, however—for someone whose Anglicanism has, until now, been throughgoingly antipodean—is how the liturgical seasons feel given the temperate seasons in the northern hemisphere. Things are topsy-turvy over there, with Easter in spring and Christmas in winter. Imagine: a white Christmas. How bizarre.

How bizarre, not to wrestle with what it might mean for Easter to fall in the fall, among languishing leaves and tired trees?
How bizarre, not to wrestle with what it might mean for Christmas to trail behind the height of midsummer’s light and warmth? (Not that this is really an issue this far south…In any case:)
Here, we are made to reconcile resurrection life and autumnal death, the fragility of the infant Christ and the strength of the summer sun.
Here, we are confronted with these paradoxes, in which lie important truths.
Important truths about the death that defeats death, and thus brings life.
Important truths about the meaning of strength, to be found in a helpless child, a crucified peasant.

These paradoxical truths are, as we well know, at the heart of our faith, which subverts dominant assumptions about death and life, strength and weakness. The Bible—and in their wisdom, the putters-together of the Lectionary— know these truths well, in their presenting of these starkly contrasting images of Jesus in juxtaposition:
Christ: the crucified criminal, unjustly bound and bullied and mocked and murdered.
Christ: the cosmic co-creator, who is before all things and who holds all things together in himself.

On one hand:
Christ, the King of the Jews, a failed revolutionary if ever there was one; born under dubious circumstances only to emerge out of obscurity into notoriety, and finally rejected and abandoned by his people into the hands of an imperial death squad.
And yet, on the other hand:
This Christ, the King, who was killed for our sake, is at the heart of all things, between the death of Good Friday behind us and the life of Christmas before us.
Christ, the King, who met such an undignified end, is himself the beginning of all things, the head and firstborn who goes ever ahead of us to receive us to himself and his kingdom.
(And) Christ, the King, is himself the end of this story in which we find ourselves, this story that we tell, year by year, in liturgical seasons and their colours, in sermons and songs, and—crucially—in the mundane and miraculous meanderings of our daily lives.

Christ, the King, is at one and the same time, our source and beginning, our end and destination.

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These are lofty claims, to be sure; and who can be sure what they mean?
Surely not us, here, at the end of the Church’s year, which so often goes unnoticed as we pay heed instead to the other stories in our lives. There are school years and financial years and election years that call out to us and draw us into themselves. Our memories are fragile and our attention spans limited, and these mysterious metaphysical matters fall understandably to the wayside. God is, as Karl Barth maintained, “wholly other”, and as Augustine held, “closer to us than we are to ourselves”, but not, as it were, obviously in our faces, up in our grills. And so, we fail to notice God.

All things considered then, the Feast of Christ the King is well-placed, at the forgettable end of the Church’s year, with Easter far behind and Christmas proper a ways yet to come. It puts this baffling Christ up in our grills. It reminds us of these things we forget so easily, that—whether we realise it or not and despite appearances to the contrary—Christ is, indeed, King. Christ is King, and Caesar is not. Christ is King, and our nationalisms and political partisanships and brand loyalties are necessarily relativized, lest they collapse into idolatry.

This business about Christ being our beginning and end—the one who holds us together—is meant to jolt us out of the lulls of our mistaken identities as cogs in the machines of machiavellian politicians and the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

This business about the King of the Jews who conquers, not by taking up arms, but by having his arms bound to planks in blood and iron and rust is an indictment of power as practiced in political playgrounds wherever it has been poisoned by humanity’s most pathetic weaknesses and insecurities.

If Christ is our King, then our lives must look very different than if we were instead governed by some other set of allegiances.
If Christ is our King, then Pilate is not, he for whom violent force is the price of some pale facsimile of peace.
If Christ is our King, then Caiaphas is not, he who applied the utilitarian calculus, and concluded that it is good for one man to die for the sake of his national security.
If Christ is our King, then Caesar is not, nor are the coins that bear his image. Neither governmental stability nor financial freedom feature in the eschatological hopes of the faithful. Which is not to say that politics and economics are irrelevant. On the contrary, it is to affirm the centrality of Christ in our political and economic lives.
If Christ is our King, then our loyalties can be taken for granted by no one, not Pepsi or Coke, Visa or Mastercard, Apple or Microsoft, Labour or National. The Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category. It is the risen body of the crucified criminal who is, at the same time, the King who is ever arriving to defeat darkness and death, and who brings peace. We had better behave like it.

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(I’m not quite done. One last thing:)
It is good to be back, if only for a short while. I cannot say how much I have missed this place, you people. You who have sent me away with the knowledge that whenever we eat the bread that we will eat and drink of the cup from which we will drink, wherever we are—in Dunedin or in Oxford—there the entire Body of Christ is present, and you and I and all of us are present therein. This kingly body and this kingly blood, which we consume, and which consumes us, binds us together, and with all the company of heaven, whatever that might mean. Whatever any of this might mean.

In the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.