To watch this morning’s service, click here.
The sermon begins around the 25 minute mark. I am including the words of welcome here as well because they set the tone for the whole service.
Words of Welcome
Friends good morning and welcome to First Churches. Today is the culmination of the liturgical year. Today we celebrate “Christ the King” Sunday. It is also the Sunday before Thanksgiving and so the readings and the music and the sermon, all of which were completed before Friday afternoon, will reflect that.
But given the verdict of not guilty that was handed down on Friday in the Rittenhouse trial, I fully understand that praise and thanksgiving might not be the first thing on everyone’s lips. I have no doubt that for many of us grief, outrage, and despair, are in the mix as well.
So I want to begin by reminding us all that Jesus knew what it was to be wrongfully accused and unfairly judged. In fact, that is our gospel story for today. The justice system failed him just as it has failed the families of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum. The scales of justice were tilted back then to protect those already in power just as they are tilted now to protect the power of whiteness in our country.
And so I want to begin with a prayer acknowledging the dissonance in our hearts. We have so much to be grateful for and so much to be angry about, so much blessing and so much more to give, so much hope, and so much work still to do. May God have mercy on us and inspire us to not only believe that a better world is possible, but make it the work of our lives to bring that better world into being. Let us pray:
Prayer adapted from Dr. Sharon R. Fennema’s prayer (https://www.ucc.org/rittenhouse-verdict-responsive-litany/?fbclid=IwAR1LwnTe6tjjL-UzUfdbg0bXSt30nTDE3rHA8JOdAHCOOKR2R424DKTZ7l4)
Jesus our Christ, our anointed one, our King,
Ruler of rulers, Sovereign of sovereigns, Judge of judges,
we come before you with sighs too deep for words
trusting that you can hear and know and understand the weariness and rage that lives in our minds and hearts and breath and bone.
We pray with those whose anger ignites at this miscarriage of justice,
whose deep hurt at the reminders of how little some lives matter
and how broken our systems remain, has become a bright light of rage.
We pray with those of us who are not surprised by this verdict,
who know what a mostly white jury means,
who recognize how slowly the arc of justice bends in a system bound by white supremacy.
We pray with those of us who trust this decision, who have confidence that this outcome shows us the truth of what happened, who want to believe that equality and fairness live at the heart of our legal system.
Christ, who is our only Judge, we are praying for your righteousness.
Convert our unquestioning allegiance and deepen our understanding of the histories that shape us.
Find us in our pessimism and lead us in the way of accountability.
May we pledge our hearts to embody the kind of outrage that turns the tables on violence in every form.
Fill us with your fierce love and tender rage.
that our anger might become a sacred fire,
cleansing and renewing;
that our despair might become hopeful vision,
guiding us toward justice;
that our confidence might become humble curiosity,
bringing your promised reign closer with every step, every sigh, every act, our every prayer. Amen.
To watch this morning’s service, click here.
The sermon begins around the 25 minute mark.
Jesus, The King of Subversion
Christ The King & Thanksgiving Sunday, Year B
Matthew 6: 24-34 & John 18:33-37
Rev. Sarah Buteux
Today is Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday, a feast day instituted by Pope Pius the XI in 1925 and adopted by the mainline Protestant churches after Vatican II, to remind the faithful that Christ is the “King of Kings” and the “Lord of all Creation.”
And I’m hoping you feel a little weird about the fact that we’re celebrating it today, because I think Jesus would feel a little weird about the fact that we’re celebrating it today.
Though I do think that Jesus would be happy about the fact that we feel weird about celebrating it today, because titles like, “Lord” and “King” go hand in hand with words like “patriarchy” and “hierarchy,” don’t they?
And Jesus wasn’t all that big on either one of those.
Nor was he a fan of kingdoms built on the abuse of power and privilege or empires sustained by violence and force, which up until now has been pretty much all of them; ours included.
Actually, the idea of Jesus as the “King of Kings” smacks of triumphalism; doesn’t it? To be the “Lord of Lords,” is the very definition of supremacy. It leaves little room for pluralism or humility. In fact, it leaves little room for anyone else at all.
It flys in the face of the spirit of service and inclusion that Jesus modeled at every turn.
Frankly, the very idea that we would set aside a Sunday to celebrate Christ as “King” seems antithetical to the whole ministry of Jesus, especially the Jesus we’ve been following to Jerusalem for the last 12 weeks; the one who claimed to be not the king of all but a servant of all.
And yet, in all fairness to Pope Pius and even Pilate…Jesus did talk a lot about ushering in a new kind of kingdom and in today’s reading it would seem that all of that talk has finally caught up with him.
He has been handed over by the Jewish leaders – not all of the Jews as this passage implies, but handed over by the Sadducees who regularly colluded with Rome. Jesus has been betrayed into the hands of his enemies and he now he stands before Pilate like a lamb before the slaughter, waiting to be tried and executed.
But when the moment of truth comes, when Pilate comes right out and asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?,” Jesus demurs and a very strange conversation ensues:
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me? “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t confirm or deny his kingship, but he does confirm what he’s said all along about power. “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world my followers would be fighting…” to protect me, says Jesus.
Aha! “So you are a king?,” says Pilate, thinking he’s caught him in an admission. But Jesus neither confirms nor denies the charge.“You say that I am a king,” says Jesus, when all I’m saying is that I have come to testify to the truth.
It is a frustrating exchange, for Pilate and for us, because they are talking past each other. What Jesus means by kingdom bears no resemblance to any kingdom Pilate has ever seen. And what Jesus means by kingship bears no resemblance to any king Pilate has ever known.
In Pilate’s mind, the king is the one with the power to make you do what he wants while in Jesus’ mind you can be a king without employing any force at all.
In Pilate’s world, kingdoms are acquired and enlarged by threats and violence, but Jesus dreams instead of a kingdom that comes through acts of love and service.
To survive in Pilate’s kingdom one must work at all times to accumulate more: more wealth, more power and more prestige. To thrive in Jesus’ kingdom, one must trust in God at all times and learn to give all of that away.
Pilate is willing to kill for his kingdom. Jesus is not.
But he is willing to die… which is really and truly confounding.
Here in this strange snippet of dialogue, Jesus inverts our whole understanding of power and kingship and it is so counterintuitive that Pilate isn’t the only one who doesn’t get it. The sad truth is that most Christians don’t get it either. We are as guilty as anyone of putting our trust in earthly power and material wealth and the results have been tragic.
Wars and pogroms, crusades and colonization, slavery and land grabs, forced conversions and re-education programs, and now the rise of Christian Nationalism. Christian Nationalism should be a contradiction in terms not a growing phenomenon, but here we are.
Even the holiday we will celebrate this week – which is my favorite, I love Thanksgiving – feels hopelessly tainted by the acts of Christians who failed to understand their Christ.
I mean, the irony of the Puritans fleeing Europe in order to find a land where they could practice their faith freely only to force that faith on the indigenous people whose land they stole and whose lives they destroyed is heartbreaking…Heartbreaking!…. but it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking.
Over and over Christians have failed to understand the very truth Jesus came to reveal to us: the truth that the kingdom of God does not come through dominion but service, not through the accumulation of power but through the power of love.
And Church, you know as well as I do, how easy it would be for me to stand up here and rattle off a long and tragic litany of all the ways those other Christians have misunderstood Jesus as completely as Pilate misunderstood him. It would be easy as the pumpkin pie I’m very much looking forward to.
So easy for me to stand here and judge them from afar, and in the mere act of judging feel as though I am accomplishing something. But all that judging equates me with who in this passage? Pilate. And that’s not where I want to stand.
It’s a whole lot harder for me to put myself on the line the way Jesus did and ask how I can live in a way that starts to make things right…a whole lot harder to ask what it would it look like for me to be more like Jesus; to allow my life to be judged without returning judgment, to subvert the status quo for the sake of building up rather than just tearing down, to use my power to create a counterculture for the common good, a commonwealth, if you will, that is truly good news for all?
But those are just fancy words with very little substance, so let me bring it down to brass tacks. Let’s talk turkey, if you will, and consider just one way we might actually do that.
I mentioned before that Thanksgiving, in spite of its colonialist history, is my favorite holiday. I think I love it because it gives me a reason to gather around the table with loved ones without the pressure of having to buy them gifts. Basically, I love it because it’s harder to commercialize than Christmas and birthdays and most of the other holidays.
I mean sure you can buy special china and tablecloths and turkey shaped butter dishes and roasting pans. And yes, you can drive yourself right over the edge trying to make a feast fit for a king.
But the best thanksgivings have so much more to do with the people connecting than the food people are eating; right? Well, I’m wondering if we can’t perhaps redeem this holiday in some way, not just for the sake of our people but all people?
Rather than stew in guilt for the sins of our forebears or sit in judgment of them and then just go along with the show –
(as most of us will do because let’s be honest, decolonizing Thanksgiving is one thing, decolonizing grandma is a whole other – present company of grandmas excluded) –
rather than boycott Thanksgiving, could we take a page out of Jesus’ book – maybe this page from Matthew chapter 6 that we also read earlier – and lean into the fact that there is something deeply subversive about gratitude in a capitalist society?
Because there is.
Studies show that a spirit of contentment is really bad for the economy.
Friends, could we intentionally pause and give thanks for more than the perfectly bronzed turkey on the table and really take stock of just how much we have to be thankful for?
Because when we stop and realize how much we do have, it takes the pressure off our desire to accumulate even more, which takes the pressure off our already busy lives and cluttered homes and bank accounts and production lines and supply chains and landfills, and ultimately, even the earth itself.
What if we sat around our Thanksgiving tables and didn’t try to wrack our brains or quiz our children about what else we could possibly want for Christmas – as if it’s our moral duty to consume and run out on Black Friday to scour every sale for the best deals, but thought instead about what we could give out of the abundance we already enjoy?
What we could swap that we already have?
What we could make with our own two hands with lots of love if not skill?
It’s just a start. Just a little shift. But it’s a little shift that wouldn’t just help us redeem Thanksgiving, it’s a shift that could go a long way toward helping us redeem Christmas.
Imagine if our celebration of Christ’s coming and the way we live as Christians wasn’t just good news for us at the expense of the earth, but truly a joy for the world? I believe that’s the sort of subversion that Jesus would love.
You know the pope who started this feast day was actually trying to call Christians away from all the competing philosophies of power that dominate this world. In the run up to WWII, he wasn’t just wary of fascism and communism and secularism and totalitarianism, he was also very wary of capitalism.
Pope Pius saw false promises of security everywhere.
He wanted to call the church back to Jesus as the only one worthy of our trust and our fealty, Jesus as the only one with the power to really change the world for the better, Jesus, for lack of a better term, as the only king worthy of our lives and our hearts.
And yes, Jesus as king is a little weird. But I’m willing to go along with the pope on this one precisely because of the way Jesus used his power and the way he inspires me to use mine.
Friends, Jesus isn’t, was not, and will never be, a king by means of force, but only and ever by invitation. Jesus is only king when we let his truth rule in our lives: the truth that thanks be to God, there is already enough and some to share. Enough food, enough money, enough love, enough grace, enough of everything we could ever need. Enough to go around if everyone is willing to stop grasping and instead share what we have with one another.
Our security lies in learning to love one another with all we have, not get ahead of each other by seeking to have even more.
The kingdom of God gains ground when we live that truth into being. It recedes when we choose to live otherwise. It never comes by force, but that does not mean it is powerless. Thanks to Jesus, we have nothing less than the power to bring heaven to earth.
So this holiday season may we use our power, all that we are and all that we have, and use it well. May our celebrations testify to the strange truth of our subversive king, that God’s kingdom might come and God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen