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 6 2016

The sermon was delivered at a Worcester College Chapel evensong service.

1 Kings 3:1-15
Romans 8:31ff

For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.
Words from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the eighth chapter.

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

If God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, there isn’t much biblical evidence for it.

Saul, you might remember, was king before David, Solomon’s father, whose throne he inherited. God ditched Saul after he had the nerve to offer sacrifices to God before battle, instead of waiting for that crotchety prophet Samuel who, by the way, was running late and never bothered to send so much as a carrier pigeon. The break was decisive when, instead of slaughtering all the men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys, Saul spared the Amalek king and some choice livestock. And no, God wasn’t angry because Saul was an elitist who only deemed royal blood worth keeping within the body envelope. If only. Old Samuel saw to King Agag’s bloody end, of course, Yahweh’s bulldog that he was, he hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.

All this happens before Solomon is born to David and Bathsheba, the wife he obtained by sending her first husband off to his death on the front lines. This, the guy in whose statutes Solomon was meant to walk. Clearly, there was redemption for David not at all clearly extended to Saul, who—you might recall—goes mad, dies in battle, gets decapitated and displayed on a wall. His heir, Jonathan, is killed too, whose love for David was wonderful, passing the love of women. David’s words, not mine. David, incidentally, is never really described as having loved anyone at all.

Anyway, Solomon. Solomon was born after God had already punished David for the thing with Bathsheba’s first husband, by killing their first son, Solomon’s elder brother. So Solomon was OK. More than OK: he was exceedingly wealthy, everyone loved him, and people still now keep saying that he wrote these great bits of the Bible that he probably had nothing to do with. But, of course, there was all that idolatry, worshipping Astarte and Milsom, Yahweh’s neighbouring competitors. Plus, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which just seems excessive. In the Book of Deuteronomy—which, in Israel’s mythic history, was written by Moses long before Israel ever had kings—it says that kings should acquire neither gold nor wives. By the Bible’s own legal accounting, Solomon was a bad king. And Yahweh knew it too. Which is why Solomon gets to die of natural causes in old age, and his son is punished instead, and his descendants after him.

If God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, there isn’t much biblical evidence for it.

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Life isn’t fair. This fundamental Christian commitment is offensive to modern sensibilities, those of us who have imbibed the opiate of meritocracy and thus hallucinate a karmic vision of the world. It is Christianity 101—the ethics of Christianity is one of grace, not of fairness—and we have learnt this lesson well. Sometimes too well.

St Paul’s description of the Christian life is easily and often mistaken for the kind of life that Solomon and David lived. Lives in which nothing, not even our own attempts to sabotage ourselves at the expense of others, can get in the way of God’s love for us, passing the love of any man or woman. And, to be sure, this is indeed the life given unto us, we lucky bastards. The Christian gospel is the ludicrous news that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we are incapable of destroying ourselves. It seems too good to be true, and it is, and yet we believe it. But this reading of St Paul, meet and right thought it might be, should not blind us to the rest of the message.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Rhetorical questions, to be sure, but not as hypothetical to St Paul as it seems to us now. We are, in this way, more like Solomon than Paul, the apostle previously known as Saul. We are—despite our many and sundry sins, our minor misdeeds and acts of cruelty, our pedestrian participation in viciously mundane cycles of injustice and oppression that trickle up or down to affect the anonymous strangers who live far, far away, but whose underpaid brows sweat for those things with which our cups overfloweth—(we are), well, handed overflowing cups of Oxbridgeness, even those of us who tell ourselves that we worked hard to get here, which I’m sure we did. Hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or the sword? Hardly. And yet, St Paul does not list such things for no reason: such was the cup promised to the Christian, to them who dared to sign up to the so-called good news of the so-called kingdom. It is the cup promised to us, though that too rings false, perhaps even less believable than the good news that we’re all going to get away, by the grace of God, scot-free.

But what can this mean, that we are more like Solomon than like Paul?

It means at least that we are unspeakably lucky, having won the genetic, cultural, and social lotteries that have placed us at the top 1% of the world’s economy: the median income in the UK is £26,000, compared to the global average of £11,000. Life isn’t fair, and our dices are loaded.

Gratitude is in order, for sure. But also—and this is where it gets tricky—we have to keep asking ourselves if we are too comfortable, too complacent in our privilege. The Christian faith is meant neither as a crutch nor a convenience, but a life of leaning against the windmills of injustice and oppression, bigotry and cruelty. This is the other side of an ethics of grace: Christians are called to give of ourselves because we are not our own to keep, but God’s, the God who gave up life, even to death on the cross, for the sake of the world. That is what the Christian life looks like. And if we find our blessings getting in the way of this life, this vocation, we should instead look upon them as curses. Without fetishising suffering, we should equally refuse to remain content to merely enjoy the world in which we find ourselves, instead striving to make it better, even if it means giving up our riches and honour and longevity. And if we do, the promise of the gospel is that even in our poverty and dishonour and weakness and death, the love of God will be immovably with us. To some people, this will mean nothing. But they are wrong.

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